A once-popular pro-slavery story published in 1919 by Harry Stillwell Edwards. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Eneas Africanus is perhaps the most popular pro-slavery text in United States’ history. Published by Harry Stillwell Edwards (1855-1938) in 1919, this tract’s claimed astronomical sales in the millions may have been exaggerated but are nonetheless indicative of the story’s enormous popularity. At least 45 editions were published between 1920-2007; they include one Spanish translation (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1920) and a Canadian edition (Toronto: McClellan & Stewart, 1937). An illustrated edition became popular and occasional private editions appeared, like those produced by the Book Club of Texas in 1930 and the Wesleyan Glee Club in 1932. This short story, most frequently sold as a cheap softbound edition, was a publishing phenomenon. These editions sold primarily in Southern states and only in 1940 did a Grosset & Dunlap edition bring the story to a national market.
Edwards’ story is one of a faithful slave retainer who searches for his old master for years during the Reconstruction period, uninterested in freedom and concerned only to serve his master. It is an early twentieth-century picaresque retelling of popular antebellum pro-slavery fiction portraying contented and faithful slaves. As such, it continues the pro-slavery narrative tradition into the world of post-World War I popular fiction.
The narrative, in the form of a series of letters and other texts, begins with a public letter, published in the Atlanta Constitution, from a former Confederate officer, Major George E. Tommey. He requests information on the whereabouts of Eneas, a slave separated from the Tommey family during the war, and the family heirloom bridal cup with whose safekeeping he was charged. What follows are the responses Major Tommey receives from throughout Georgia and other southern states as letter-writers describe their encounters over the years with the singularly canny and yarn-telling Eneas. Throughout his eight-year journey, Eneas searches for his master. The story culminates with the arrival of Eneas and his family, acquired on the road, at the height of the wedding of Major Tommey’s daughter. The bridal cup is restored in the nick of time. Slavery also gains symbolic restoration, for as Eneas informs his now-regained master, his new wife and children share his slave status: “Some folks tell me dey is free, but I know dey b'long ter Marse George Tommey…” (38) Eneas is the perfect slave: even when liberated, he is self-enslaving. Edwards viewed Emancipation as an intrinsic failure, for even for well-satisfied blacks on the Tommey plantation, freedom “had brought but little of brightness into the lives of these humble people.” (35)
Edwards’ satiric representations of black characters, while adopting the voice of a sympathetic local colorist, were vicious and racist. In a series of short stories published in the 1880s in Century magazine and other leading journals, Edwards portrayed Emancipation as a farrago and blacks as adult children constitutionally unable to participate in citizenship. Throughout Edwards’ fictions, blacks appear as inherently inferior to whites and content with subservience in a racial hierarchy. Eneas Africanus, published when Edwards was sixty-four years old, was the culmination and greatest success of his career and remained true to his white supremacist views. As George Hutchinson observes, “The book was ‘plantation school’ fiction of the deepest dye, extreme if unintended testimony to the racial delusions to which upper-class white Southerners were prone.” (In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, Belknap Press, 2006, p. 214) Nonetheless, Eneas Africanus had its appeal as a mythic representation of an African American folk hero. The story received attention from Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson in 1939 and they began writing a musical comedy based on its plot. Paul Robeson rejected an offer to play Eneas but Bill Robinson agreed; however, the play was never produced. (Allen Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls, Louisiana State University Press, 1989, p. 206).
Alongside his professional careers as a lawyer, journalist, and postmaster in Macon and Atlanta, Edwards produced voluminous amounts of fiction over a lengthy and productive career. He established himself alongside writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, leaders of the ‘plantation literature’ school, and as an equal in black dialect writing with Joel Chandler Harris. Edwards was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1913, the first Southern writer so honored.
Despite his decades-long market popularity, however, relatively little criticism of Edwards exists. Early and mid- twentieth-century references to Edwards were favorable. As late as 1957, the critic George P. Garrett wrote that “Edwards’ strength is in his moral vision, the shrewd, unswerving ethic of a naïve character, the pilgrim who, armed with no more than native wit, stumbles and pratfalls his way to Jerusalem.” (Southern Excursions: Views on Southern Letters in My Time (James McKinley, ed.), Louisiana State University Press, 2003, pp. 148-149) A more negative evaluation appeared when George Lamplugh explored the use of racial stereotype in the work of Edwards and other Southern regionalist writers (“The Image of the Negro in Popular Magazine Fiction, 1875-1900,” The Journal of Negro History 57 (April 1972) 2: 177-189). Doris Lanier describes the long friendship of Edwards and Page in “Harry Stillwell Edwards and Thomas Nelson Page,” Southern Studies 1990 (1) 3: 203-209. Reconsideration of Eneas Africanus from a postcolonial perspective appears in John Lowe, “Reconstruction Revisited: Plantation School Writers, Postcolonial Theory, and Confederates in Brazil,” Mississippi Quarterly 2003-04, 57 (1) 5-26, at 10-17; Lowe also examines the biblical and classical allusions of the story in Bridging Southern Cultures: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Louisiana State University Press, 2005, pp. 226-230).
For further biographical information, see Doris Lanier, “Harry Stillwell Edwards: Chronicler of the South,” Atlanta History: A Journal of Georgia & the South 31 (3) 30-41; Paul Eugene McClure, Harry Stillwell Edwards: A Biographical and Critical Study, Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1977; and Nelle Edwards Smith, Harry Stillwell Edwards: A Man Not Without Honor (Macon, Ga.: Eneas Africanus Press, 1969).
- Joe Lockard