Brian Kelly looks at three new novels set in the period between the American Revolution and the end of the civil war that put slavery and racism centre stage.
Not so very long ago America's rulers comforted themselves with the notion that the history of the US represented a shining exception, one unmarked by brutality and oppression. They could sustain this illusion only with the help of academic historians who ignored evidence about the centrality of racism, class inequality or imperialist greed in America's past.
Theirs was a fairytale version of the past, useful for holding together defenders of the existing order in the face of challenges from below. But it was an account that could not hold up under serious scrutiny, and when US society began to move out from under the shadow of McCarthyism in the late 1950s, it was a fairy tale whose days were numbered.
Above all, this view of the past rested on an unwillingness to reckon with the paradox at the heart of early US history - that much of the prosperity the early republic delivered unequally to its white citizens, rested on two and a half centuries of black slave labour, and that its "democratic" institutions were from the outset deeply entangled in the business of policing the boundaries between slavery and freedom. As the struggle against segregation gathered strength in the early 1960s, this racist whitewashing of the past became one of its prime targets.
Three new novels demonstrate how thoroughly that challenge to the flag-draped mythology has penetrated popular culture. They also show how different, but more familiar, the early US looks when it is reconfigured with slavery at its centre. In Speak Right On, Mary E Neighbour builds a poignant, nuanced narrative around the life of Dred Scott, the slave whose claim to freedom drew the Supreme Court into a growing confrontation between the slave South and the free labour North in 1857. Following Scott on his forced march across the South, Neighbour illuminates how slavery worked its way into every corner of human relations, constricting the lives of all those it touched.
Anita Diamant's The Last Days of Dogtown, about the decline of a marginal community in the early 19th century North, lifts the lid on a society already divided between "haves" and "have-nots", a society not unlike the one that left its poorest citizens to die in the streets of New Orleans last year. Threaded throughout Diamant's sombre narrative is the elemental truism that slavery, and the stigma of race that it generated, was no respecter of boundaries, geographical or otherwise. It permeated everywhere, insinuating itself into the most intimate human interactions.
Working in different regional settings, both authors offer powerful renderings of the precariousness of black life in a country committed to slavery. Dred Scott came of age at a time when the abolitionist impulse that had flickered briefly during the revolution was overtaken by the increasing profitability of King Cotton. In this context, the ban on slave importation approved during the revolutionary period did not bring slavery's extinction. Instead the demand for new lands pushed the institution across the lower South and gave rise to domestic slave-breeding, tore slave families apart, and brought new restrictions to the lives of free blacks.
All of these developments were concentrated in the life of Dred Scott, whose owners dragged him across seven states, repeatedly separating him from kith and kin. It was in St Louis, Missouri, during his first encounter with a substantial "free black" community, that Scott first became aware of the "mighty skinny freedom" on offer for blacks who managed to climb out of slavery.
In Diamant's rendering, black life is only slightly less precarious in the North. Dogtown's two main black characters live their lives acutely aware of the fickleness of their freedom. Black Ruth - progeny of a slave woman and her white owner - returns to her birthplace to uncover the details surrounding her mother's death. But she is so traumatised by the truth that she lives her life incognito - working out her days passing as a man and finding a semblance of companionship only among the stray dogs that share their patch of ground with the human refuse trapped in Dogtown.
Cornelius Finson is a former slave constantly on the alert for the bounty hunters prowling the North, kidnapping freed blacks and bundling them southward back into slavery. Generous, intelligent and lonely, he and Judy Rhines, a destitute white woman trying to fight off her own isolation, become involved in an illicit relationship that flowers into a deep, unfeasible love. When a jealous local confronts Cornelius with the threat that he will expose their "abomination", he walks away from Judy, leaving her without any explanation.
Cornelius never relinquishes his love, but for years he is reduced to watching Judy from afar, forced to suppress any hope of rekindling the only bright spark in his cramped existence. He returns to live in Judy's rundown hovel only after she abandons it for town, and makes his feelings known only after being brought in to the workhouse to die. "I used to tell myself I stayed away... to protect you from the gossip," he tells her. "The truth is, I was afraid on my own account. They kill us like dogs, like nothing."
American Civil War
Like both of these novels, EL Doctorow's The March begins from the historical record and succeeds in evoking the tensions present, but at a very different juncture - Northern general William T Sherman's "march to the sea". This was a turning point in the American Civil War that dealt the slaveholding Confederacy a blow from which it never recovered. Dubbed by some critics an "anti-war novel", the book deals with the contradictions brought to the surface in a society caught in social revolution. "The present struggle between the South and the North", Karl Marx had written just six months into the war, is "nothing but a conflict between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour", which "can no longer live peacefully side by side... It can only end with the victory of one system or another."
The March begins with the arrival of Union troops on a Georgia plantation and follows the massive "floating world" that moved with Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Doctorow's main character, Pearl, is the light-skinned, adolescent offspring of an illicit master-slave affair, out of place in both the "big house" and the slave quarters - "too sassy for one and disdainful of the other". She makes her way into Sherman's camp and dons the uniform of a drummer boy, an act she will later drop to take up work as a nurse. There she will meet Stephen Walsh, a New York conscript and a "white man with his own troubles." Their difficulties building a racially mixed relationship serve as the thread for the narrative, though Doctorow surrounds them with an array of powerful second-string characters.
Pearl's father embodies the bitterness and disorientation that gripped Southern slaveholders forced to come to grips with Sherman's powerful onslaught. In the days before it began, John Jameson "arranged to sell away his dozen prime field hands", oblivious to the sound of "the families wailing down in the shacks". "No buck nigger of mine will wear a Federal uniform," he told his wife. His resentment is shared by other men of his class. "There was such wealth to be got from slave labour," one Northern officer told himself as he surveyed the opulence of a planter's abandoned mansion. "No wonder these people were fighting to the death."
In the slave quarters, of course, Jameson's despondency was more than compensated for by jubilation and a sense that freedom was on the march. "The fear that they had all seen in the eyes of the fleeing Massah and Mistress told them that deliverance had come." "We are with Gen'ral Sherman," Pearl defiantly chided her ex-mistress. "An his army gonna do in what's left of slaveholding."
Freed slaves learned quickly the dangers of overestimating Northern resolve, however. With his march concluded, Sherman reminisces about the "bestowal of meaning to the very ground" over which he marched, making "every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral purpose", but it was the slaves' insistence upon emancipation that brought real purpose to the war. In September 1862 Sherman had warned his fellow Unionist Ulysses S Grant against "setting loose negroes too fast", and Doctorow's account does not flinch in depicting the ambivalence pervading Union ranks. One of the novel's most poignant scenes is a river-crossing, where troops pull up a pontoon bridge, leaving a large crowd of black camp-followers behind to face the wrath of the Confederates.
In the closing pages of The March, Pearl must decide whether she will go north with Stephen to try to make a life in New York. "It different up there?" she asks him. "Not really," he responds. Slavery had been defeated, of course, and no one who had lived through it could underestimate the scale of the transformation under way. But the struggle to impart some meaning to freedom would be fought out in the coming years. To succeed it would have to bring new hope not only to freed slaves, but to the victims of inequality North and South, pushed to the margins like the residents in Dogtown in the 1820s, or New Orleans in 2005. A struggle yet to be won.
Speak Right On by Mary E Neighbour is published by Toby Press, £14.99.
The Last Days Of Dogtown by Anita Diamant is published by Macmillan, £12.99.
The March by E L Doctorow is published by Little, Brown, £11.99.
Brian Kelly lectures in American history at Queen's University Belfast. His Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields won the Deutscher Prize in 2002. He has written an introduction for the reissue of Bernard Mandel's 1955 classic, Labor: Free and Slave, forthcoming from Illinois Press.