13 July 2009

Martha Haines Butt - Antifanaticism: A Story of the South

Martha Haines Butt is something of a mystery woman, as there is very little biographical information about her. Antifanaticism: A Tale of the South (1854) and The Leisure Moments of Miss Martha Haines Butt, A. M. (1860) appear to be her only publications. Antifanaticism was written when Butt was 19 years old, at her home in Norfolk, Virginia.

Antifanaticism very much reminded me of Danesbury House (1860), the first novel by Ellen (or Mrs Henry) Wood, which is also pure propaganda, and is also concerned with only one central idea: as a temperance novel, Danesbury House's strident message is that alcohol is poison. But to return to Butt, whose aim is not to promote temperance. Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in the abolitionist National Era between 1851 and 1852, and then as a book in 1852. It was immensely successful, and its part in the drive to abolish slavery must have been important. But the reaction against Stowe's book was great too, and many anti-Tom novels (sometimes covered under the title 'plantation literature') were published, notably Mary Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1952), William Gilmore Simms's The Sword and the Distaff (1852), and Caroline Lee Hentz's The Planter's Northern Bride (1854).* Butt's Antifanaticism is a well known example of the genre and she dedicated the book to her friend Hentz.

Similar to Ellen Wood's novel in that it relentlessly repeats a single idea with minor adjustments for variety, Antifanaticism's central tenet is that slavery is good. The novel centres around one family of slave owners, repeating ad nauseam their immense kindness to their slaves, showing that many of them won't take freedom even if it's offered, claiming that white 'slaves' in the factories in the north are 'infinitely' less free than black slaves. Staunch abolitionist visitors from the north become converted to Southern hospitality almost overnight, and return full of praise for the big-hearted slave owners. The slaves are seen singing, dancing and courting far more often than working for their beloved masters. (Although the expression 'false consciousness' comes to mind here.) And the ill treatment of slaves is viewed as a myth.

The reader of this novel will note an apparent irony in the fact that great importance is attached to the wealth of the whites, without of course any hint as to where this wealth has come from: the black slaves who appear to have such a wonderful time in and around their tiny plantation cabins which form the borders of their lives. When the plantation owner's daughter Dora returns home after a number of years schooling in the north-east, she exclaims 'Oh! how natural [...] do all the little cabins look'. And here is the central problem: no matter how well the narrator might try to convince the reader that the slaves are well treated, they are still seen as vastly inferior to white people. The narrator believes that it is part of the natural order that whites should exploit blacks and maintain a rigid control over their lives. They are, in fact, highly lucrative pets depicted as having a very limited interior life, giving amusement to their master's family by the way they speak and the way they live.

As a piece of 19th century anti-abolitionist propaganda, Antifanaticism evidently fails miserably. But as a historical document of a frightened young Southern racist several years before the Civil War, this is very interesting material.

The Leisure Moments of Miss Martha Haines Butt, A. M., although published several years later, was mostly written before Antifanaticism, and is a collection of short stories and musings which seem to have nothing of the polemical nature of her novel.

* Hentz has fallen into obscurity probably largely as a result of her over-attention to her pro-slavery novels Marcus Warlord (1852) and The Planter's Northern Bride as opposed to the other novels she wrote. In her essay 'Caroline Hentz's Balancing Act' in The Female Tradition in Southern Literature (ed. by Carol S. Manning (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)), Mary Ann Wimsatt says in her conclusion: 'Character balance and contrast, cleverly modified romance narrative structures, folktales, and a covert feminism - Caroline Hentz's novels contain enough variety in content and literary method to intrigue even the most jaded twentieth-century student of nineteenth-century literature.'

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