Eyes Wide Shut
Before getting back to blogging on the book, I corresponded with a historian I admire: Beth Barton Schweiger of the University of Arkansas. Purely coincidentally, Beth sent me a review she had previously prepared of this work, but which did not as it turns out appear in print. So with her permission, I'm running her review here, which says pretty much (and much more eloquently) what I was going to blog more informally.
As a preview, here's my favorite paragraph, which provides me with this entry's title, "eyes wide shut":
Here's the full review.
Erskine Clarke, Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic. Yale University Press, 2005. Reviewed by Beth Barton Schweiger.
In the late winter of 1796, a Georgia planter sent instructions to his wife about a slave he had leased to a neighbor some years earlier. “Make Old Jupiter go to Mr. Dowses and bring old Silvey home and set her to work,” John Jones wrote. Silvey was Jupiter’s wife. After years of doing everything in his power to get her returned, Jupiter rejoiced when his master finally relented. After the couple was reunited, Jones wrote again. “Tell [Jupiter] that as he has now got his wife back I shall expect he will do his best for me,” he told his wife. (3)
The twisted paternalism of American slavery is on full view in these two lines. Two couples, one enslaved to the other, knew one another intimately in life and in death. The mistress bathed the fevered back of the sick slave, the slave delivered and suckled the woman’s child. Master and slave, men and women, sang hymns together, prayed together, and wept together over their dead. Yet they did not know each other at all. Slave and master were bound together in a relationship so complex and ambivalent, Eugene Genovese famously wrote, “that neither could express the simplest human feelings without relation to the other.”[i] Indeed, John Jones needed his slave’s gratitude when he restored the precious thing he had so carelessly broken. And Jupiter felt the bitter edge of his joy, which laid bare his powerlessness to protect his family. Slave and master lived separate lives in a single place, unable to breach the terrible chasm opened when one human being claims complete power over another. John’s son Charles would later observe that masters “live and die in the midst of Negroes and know comparatively little of their real character.” (26)
In his Bancroft prize-winning book, Erskine Clarke shows over and over how the same event—a visit, a death, a birth, a purchase of property, a church service, a trip to town—meant one thing for the slave and another for the master. Leasing a slave was both a careless decision to bring in some extra cash and a wrenching end to marital intimacy. Clarke shows as no historian has done before that the history of American slavery should be written as a single narrative of “two histories of one place and one time.” (ix)
By far the more difficult of the two histories to write is that of the slaves. Clarke used an extraordinary collection of papers left behind by the family of the Rev. Charles Colcock Jones, scattered in archives from New Orleans to North Carolina. The family, one of the wealthiest families in one of the wealthiest slave societies in the world, meticulously recorded the births, deaths, sales, and movements of their slaves and many details of the material circumstances of their lives. In this, we are indebted to the paternalism that prompted such record-keeping. The voices of the slaves themselves are nearly always silent in these records, so Clarke draws on an anthropological model pioneered by the historian Rhys Isaac to reconstruct their experiences.[ii]
Accordingly, the book is filled with people moving across the landscape of coastal Georgia, which itself becomes a character in the story. There are carefully imagined meetings, conversations, and surreptitious gatherings by slaves on any one of seventeen plantations in the region. Most of these events are known to us only through accounts left by their masters, but Clarke richly reimagines them from the perspective of the slaves. One can only marvel at the exhaustive research and years of thought required to support such readings.
It is a cliché to say that a brief review cannot do justice to a book. Clarke’s beautifully-detailed history is as densely peopled and intricately plotted as a Russian novel, stuffed with magnificent detail. In these pages, we learn and relearn the epic of American slavery. Clarke writes unapologetically of a particular people in a particular place. We see the view across the marshes from the broad piazza of the big house at Montevideo and the view from the fires that burned in front of the cabins in the settlement at Carlawter. We watch as a Presbyterian session bowed to the absolute power of the master by declaring that Major, a church member, could marry again after his wife was sold away, as she was as good as dead to him. We see the only white man singing and praying with several hundred mourners at the slave preacher Sharper’s funeral, and watch as the ox cart bears the coffin down a dusty moon-lit road to the burial ground in the settlement. We see how the story of slavery moved towards bondage for the master and towards freedom for the slave, and how both master and slave were diminished.
The kind of slavery practiced on the Jones family plantations was not the only kind of American slavery. As Ira Berlin has emphasized, slavery changed dramatically in North America from generation to generation and region to region.[iii] The free people of Liberty County, Georgia thrived off the labor of their slaves for more than a century and a half before Federal troops invaded during the Civil War. The stability and prosperity brought by the labor-intensive rice cultivation meant that slaves in the region were able, more than many American slaves, to live in relatively stable families, to negotiate the task system of work with their masters, and to create a rich Gullah culture out of remembered African traditions. Yet these relatively stable slave settlements were under constant threat in the early nineteenth century, along with the rest of the seaboard South, from a new kind of slavery practiced in the lower Mississippi valley. The massive migration of more than a million slaves to till the rich soils of the interior, named by Berlin the “Second Middle Passage,” put constant pressure on plantations in the older seaboard states. Long before the thundering of Federal guns threatened to end plantation slavery as it was practiced in the Low Country, it was being threatened from inside the South.
Charles Jones was a sincere Christian man, and by any meaningful measure, a benevolent master. He had agonized over slavery in his youth, particularly during his years of study at Andover and Princeton, at one time declaring it unqualifiedly against the laws of God. He eventually silenced his own fears by devoting his life to “the religious instruction of the slaves.” If slavery must continue, Jones reasoned, then it must be reformed and brought under the supervision of Christian people. Accordingly, Jones devoted most of his working life to evangelizing slaves on his own and neighboring plantations. His optimism about the possibilities of moral reform to wrench society into the shape he thought best matched the fervor of any northern moral reformer of his day. North and South, all Americans seemed convinced of their power over history. And yet, even the relatively benign and deeply Christian paternalism of Jones and his wife Mary could never completely dull the sharp assertion of power by owners over what was owned. “They are traitors who may pilot an enemy into your bedchamber!” Jones exclaimed of his slaves in late 1863 as Yankee gunboats sailed up a nearby river, prompting the boldest of them to take flight. (415) And as her life lay in ruins after the war, the widow Mary demonstrated how easily pious pity for the slave hardened into racial hatred for freedmen and women. “With their emancipation must come their extermination,” she bluntly declared. “They perish when brought into conflict with the intellectual superiority of the Caucasian race.” (444)
Clarke is not the first to use the rich papers left behind by the Jones family. Nor is it the first time a study based on them has won national acclaim. In 1972, the literary scholar Robert Manson Myers published an 1,800-page colossus, The Children of Pride, which featured a selection of Jones family letters written between 1854 and 1868.[iv] The book was hailed by many critics and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 over some loud objections. One Georgia historian scorned the book’s warm reception by the “literate few in the fading Daughters of the Confederacy” and decried its “Gone With the Wind” southern apologetics, complete with “shadowy whites, invisible negroes, slavemasters of unbelieveable Christian rectitude, and flowers of chivalry.”[v]
Clarke’s achievement in Dwelling Place is to tell two histories where Myers told only one. The striking difference is apparent on every page of the book, but it is most starkly on display in the appendices. Children of Pride included almost 300 pages of a densely-printed “Who’s Who” of nearly all of the people mentioned in the Jones letters. Not a single slave appears in the hundreds listed there (although they do earn an index of their own by first name only.) By contrast, Clarke includes eight family trees of slaves owned by the Jones family. His painstaking work demonstrates visually what is made clear on every page of his book: that the slaves had their own family histories, that their low country settlements were composed “not simply of a mass of slaves, but of distinct men and women, people with names, with diverse personalities and personal histories.” (189)
Clarke’s contribution in this book extends beyond writing slaves like Jupiter, Sharper, Silvey, and Major and their masters into a single narrative. His book also reflects on the meaning of American Christian slavery and how best to write its history. Is the best history one informed by moral outrage? How much do we have a right to expect of the dead? Shall we use them only to measure our own progress? Historians of American slavery have long wrestled with such questions. Many who have claimed no interest in defending Christianity have been able to explain people like Charles Jones only by denying that they were Christians at all.
Clarke offers a different answer. He has expressed exasperation with those who deny that “Southern evangelicalism could be a part of an intellectual tradition worth exploring,” and like Donald G. Mathews, he takes for granted that “the slaveholding ethic was as natural an extension of Evangelicalism as was abolitionism.” [vi] In this, he offers a sharp rebuke to any who might claim that the Church is a culture. Charles Jones was very possibly the best Christian master that the system of American chattel slavery might have created, and yet it is nearly impossible to claim him as one of our own. Clarke refuses to make excuses for Jones’s sincere and ultimately misguided piety, or to claim that he was merely a rank hypocrite. He takes the costlier path of trying to understand him, wisely acknowledging that we have much to learn from staring down Christian slavery for what it was. Clarke is hardly an apologist for the South. But as a seminary professor with deep roots in the Low Country and in Jones’ beloved Presbyterian tradition, it is not possible for Clarke to stand outside of Jones’s world and point a finger at this preacher’s folly. Instead, he chose the more difficult task of standing with him. And it is only in standing with him that Clarke can tell us what he sees—a blind, visionary, noble, arrogant, thoughtless, wise, brave, cowardly, heartless, loving, and mortal Christian man.
Charles Colcock Jones died in the turbulent spring of 1863, lying on his bed at Montevideo fully dressed in black with a “pure white cravat.” Only his wife and daughter-in-law were with him at his death, but many of the slaves whom he thought he knew watched as the coffin, built by the carpenter Porter, was covered over with earth. Firm in the conviction of his sin and of his Savior, Jones died still closed to the full wisdom offered by his theology. Yet it was not that he saw the truth and chose to resist it. Instead, he grasped only a part of the truth even while he was convinced he had it all. “You can know a thing to death and for all purposes be completely ignorant of it,” a character in a recent novel opined.[vii] Erskine Clarke’s history warns us how little we can see, even when we would swear that our eyes are wide open.
[i] Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, (New York: Random House, 1974; Vintage Books, 1976), 3.
[ii] The Transformation of Virginia: Community, Religion, Authority, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
[iii] Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).
[iv] Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972). Myers also published a book on Jones’s experience at Princeton and wrote a play based on the papers. Myers, A Georgian at Princeton, (New York: Harcourt, 1976) and Quintet: A Five Play Cycle Drawn from The Children of Pride (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
[v] Charles Crowe, “Historians and ‘Benign Neglect’: Conservative Trends in Southern History and Black Studies,” Reviews in American History 2 (June, 1974): 163-173.
[vi] Review of Heyrman, “Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt,” Theology Today 55 (July, 1998): 283-5; Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), xv.
[vii] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004), 7.