Saturday, October 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 172: Louisa May Alcott, An Hour (#144)

Louisa May Alcott, "An Hour" (1864) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

First, a note: I generally think that abolitionism not only had better politics, but also better writers. That the Library of America puts out collections of Slave Narratives and this collection of Antislavery Writings is great. And yet, I almost wish we saw a similar collection of pro-slave writings. Wait, what--why?

Because reading Uncle Tom's Cabin is only part of the story; the other part is the anxious response of pro-slave "anti-Tom" books, like The Planter's Northern Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. In that book, a Northern woman comes to see that slavery is actually good for the blacks and that all the rebellion is stirred up by foreigners (at least, foreigners to the South). It's not a good book, either artistically or politically: it doesn't have any of the humor or humanity of Stowe and it too clearly shows off the corners that Hentz has to cut to make the book come out the pro-slave way she wants it to. And that's one reason why I want people to read it and other pro-slave writings more. Put it this way: there are lots of people who will cheerfully tell you that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery... even though many of the secessionists helpfully wrote declarations of secession citing slavery as their reason for seceding. That's why I sometimes wonder if a pro-slavery collection might be a good idea: to shine a light on our bigoted, asshole-rich past.

Which brings us to Alcott's piece, a rich stew of melodrama and action, with a strong abolitionist message, and a can't-call-it-subtext of interracial love. And I love it. Young Gabriel has returned from the North because his mean, slave-owning father is dying, leaving a step-mother and two half-sisters, which complicates Gabriel's plan to free all the slaves, since that would leave his family destitute. (Which is a big deal because they're all women of a certain class.) Gabriel is also in love with Milly, a beautiful slave that was bought for him to, basically, rape; but since he always treated her as a woman rather than as an object, Milly loves him too. Which complicates her plan to help a slave uprising to kill all the white folk on this island. So now Gabriel is conscious of his own guilt in not freeing the slaves earlier and wants to do something to protect his family (although, it should be said, that his step-mother fulfills the "awful slaveowning matriarch" character).

So he goes down to the sugar mill, where the mob has just finished killing the cruel overseer. And there his story pauses for a moment so that the old, blind, Christ-loving slave can tell the mob that killing isn't the right way to do this. And after a relatively long interlude of listening to this discussion/monologue, Gabriel busts in, blows his (metaphorical) horn and gives them all their freedom. No mention is made of the dead white oversser these slaves have tortured and killed.

Now, it's not a perfect story in its plotting, but Alcott throws so many pieces into the mix that there are moments where it's easier to imagine some terrible outcome than a successful one. There are so many conflicting desires among these characters that we expect someone to be disappointed. And there is something dream-like and set-apart in this story, so that we might wonder what will happen after this one "Hour" is up. Will someone come to inquire as to the death of this white overseer? Will Gabriel's step-mother recant her momentary, fear-motivated kind words to Milly and try to re-enslave the slaves? And while Milly and some of the other slaves might have some kind thoughts for the white people and some skills to help them, what of the rest?

So, as I said, it's not perfect, but that's almost part of the charm here: with so many pieces floating in this stew of revenge and sentimentality, the story is easy to sink into.

No comments:

Post a Comment