Beyond the pale: poor whites as uncontrolled social contagion in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred.

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Date: Summer-Fall 2010
From: The Mississippi Quarterly(Vol. 63, Issue 3-4)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,610 words
Lexile Measure: 1310L

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Introduction

DRED.A TALE OF THE DISMAL SWAMP WAS PUBLISHED IN 1856, FOUR YEARS after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's wildly popular abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although nowhere as popular as her first novel, Dred was nevertheless read by thousands, and even surpassed Uncle Tom's Cabin in preliminary sales. The racial politics of Stowe's second abolitionist novel are more overt and revolutionary. Perhaps this explains why white readers found the novel less appealing than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Contemporary reviews found the book less persuasive, more didactic, and the title character a bit of a bore. (1) Since then Stowe scholars have made similar critiques (Korobkin 398 (2); Whitney 553).

What has been largely overlooked and unremarked, however, is Stowe's scathing depiction of "poor whites." This article seeks to rectify this oversight by examining the depiction of the white working class found in Dred. I argue that the lack of a serious discussion on this oppressed Southern population is troubling on several counts. First, Stowe expends considerable energy and time to include poor white characters in her novel. Why has this failed to spark discussion? Stowe's mischaracterizations and stereotypes of poor whites have so far failed to spark serious discussion because those mischaracterizations and stereotypes continue to operate today, both in fiction and popular and academic discourse. (3) Stowe's descriptions of poor whites as brutal, tasteless, dirty, and immoral cannot offend readers who find her descriptions accurate.

Second, we can't fully understand Stowe's position on slavery and Southern social relations if we ignore her depiction of poor whites. Entire chapters of Dred are devoted to the Cripps family, landless squatters who somehow manage to retain one slave, "Tiff," the Uncle Tom character of the novel. Other important scenes describe the relationship between the ruthless planter Tom Gordon and rootless whites who are encouraged, through alcohol and racism, to enforce the social hierarchy against abolitionists, Northerners, and runaway slaves. Long dialogues occur between Nina Gordon and her relations regarding the proper role of poor whites in the South, unfavorably comparing their idleness and freedom to the much more controlled industrial workforce in the North.

These passages are important and integral to Stowe's abolitionist arguments. She uses poor whites as a doubling contrast to black slaves. Even though Stowe argues passionately against the institution of slavery, she has no problem at all with a rigid class hierarchy between elites and the working class. Freedom from slavery does not connote freedom from mastery. What disturbs Stowe most about the Southern poor is that they are masterless and rootless, unlike the Northern working class that are well controlled by their employers. Southern planters feel no responsibility towards those who are forced to squat for survival. (4) They take no notice of poor whites except when they need them to form a lynch mob. Poor whites remain on the margins of Southern society and yet they are both crucial to its continued success and a striking example of its moral failure....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A259296685