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Book Review: Dred: The Great and Dismal Swamp

Much time has gone by since the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, was passed in December 1865. Black History Month is a good time to reflect on issues related to that dark period in our country’s history, and there is no better way than delving in into a novel that was set before slavery was abolished. Dred: The Great and Dismal Swamp is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second novel, one she wrote in part as a response to the criticism she received (along with great celebrity) for her first novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a staple in our literary canon. Schools do not often assign Dred, but it is a fascinating novel, and one that I recommend assigning to yourself this month.

Stowe named her character Dred after the Dred Scott Supreme Court case in which a slave unsuccessfully sued for his family’s freedom. She also often used real cases in her novels, doing little to veil their identity, so you’re getting real legal history (she names the cases in the appendix, and often quotes directly from them). Stowe knew her slavery laws. The character Dred is an ex-slave and a revolutionary whose father also worked in the antislavery movement. He is living as an outlaw in a large swamp in the state of North Carolina, and he takes in fugitive slaves while plotting a future uprising. He is an exaggerated hero character to whom Stowe has given great knowledge of the Bible, which he (and Stowe) both know has been used against slaves as a means to prove they are destined to be enslaved. The characters in the clergy in the novel will astound readers with their rationales and remind you that they were all fed the idea that the Bible mandated slavery. Dred does not buy this, and it is his mission to prove it.

In addition to Dred, who is a character on the outer edges of the story and more of a legend than a real man, there is the Gordon family, and their story is at the center of the novel. Nina is an 18 year old who has come home to the South after being educated in the North (though mostly in parties and shopping, as was the case with the rich, young, white girls). Her parents are both dead and she is left to be the mistress of the plantation (she has a brother, but he is a drunk and not around). Nina is being courted by several suitors, one of whom, Edward Clayton, is a worthy gentleman who does not believe in slavery and is a good and steady influence on Nina. Clayton owns a plantation and slaves, but he educates them and treats them well, all the while trying to influence society with the idea that slavery is not right. He gets some grief from those who don’t approve of the school he and his sister have on their plantation, which is a fictional oasis in the midst of the tumultuous South. Many critics call out Stowe for being too sentimental, but I think she was trying to show her readers what could be and getting them to think about all the possibilities of the human experience.

Stowe does something in Dred that is unique. While her first novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, kept racially identified families separate, Dred places a mulatto character, Harry, smack dab in the middle of the story and within the Gordon family, because Harry is Colonel Gordon’s son, just as is Tom, the wayward, violent, and free “real” son of the plantation. In the character of Harry, Stowe is exposing a new “other” that slavery created—the mulatto torn between two worlds: by law belongs with the slaves, but by blood and heart isn’t quite sure where he belongs. Stowe is heavy handed with Harry’s character at times, including his proclamation “how often I’ve wished I was a good, honest, black nigger, like Uncle Pomp!  Then I should know what I was.” But the sibling relationships, when delved into via the text, provide some more subtle nuances for readers. Harry was devoted to Nina, his sister, and ran the plantation for her, but he could never reveal the truth to her (a truth, it seems, that everyone knew and denied). And though he was given much autonomy, the novel never lets us forget that, despite his complexion, he is enslaved. Exposing another evil of slavery via the character of Harry was a daring thing for Stowe to do at the time, as the phenomenon of African female slaves bearing the master’s children was certainly a topic that was swept under the rug.

The legal case Stowe uses in the novel is of a slave (Millie) trying to assert her rights because a master physically abused her. Edward Clayton tries the case because he believes in her rights, but his father, a judge, must uphold the law as it was written, not as Edward Clayton wanted it to be. For fans of legal cases, this novel provides insights into slave law and inheritance law, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into this chapter in the legal history of our country.

We all need to be reminded of history, and reading novels such as Dred can take us back. Stowe’s language is quaint and from another time, and her words live on the page better than can be translated by any movie. The novel contains violence, hypocrisy, shocking plot twists, compelling characters, heartbreak, and hope, and should be part of the American reading experience. Stowe accomplished a lot with this second novel, though most don’t even know it exists.

Other reading for Black History Month: The Garies and Their Friends, by Frank J. Webb.

This novel is one of the first published novels by an African American writer (1857) and was written in the same time period as Stowe’s novel. In fact, Stowe was an admirer of Webb’s, and wrote him a forward to this book, which was well-received in England, but was not as acclaimed in the United States, and is obscure today.  Webb gives us the Garies, a bi-racial family who start off in the South. Mr. Garie was a slave-owning Southerner who married one of his slaves, and they had two children. Though they lived happily as husband and wife in Georgia, they weren’t legally married and had to be careful. Mrs. Garie’s wish was to be truly free, which couldn’t happen in the South, so they moved to Philadelphia, which housed many free blacks at the time. What is important about this novel is that it includes characters who were black and living middle class lives at the time, so it’s a different perspective from the slave life so many endured. But the narrative does not shy away from reminding readers that though the North was not slave-holding, racism was rampant and severe. The picture Webb paints of the Garie family dynamics and how they strived to live good lives is powerful. Webb has a formal, charming writing style that is unique and deserves to be explored.

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