Slavery in British and American Literature

Judie Newman

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Slavery in British and American Literature

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For some literary scholars, all literature that follows the establishment of Atlantic slavery is inflected by the existence of the “peculiar institution.” Toni Morrison has argued that the prevalence of gothic in 19th-century writing, particularly in America (not naturally a land of haunted castles and ruined abbeys), results from the repressed awareness of a dark abiding Africanist presence in American culture. Slavery thus underwrites the broad generic qualities of the national literature. In the view of Pierre Macherey, the silences and omissions in literature are as important as the presences. Slavery is a shrieking absence in many canonical works of American literature; “writing back “against such silences has become a major critical activity. White writers are now regularly examined in the light of the history of slavery: Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff as a black orphan from the slave port of Liverpool (in Wuthering Heights) or the Caribbean estate in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, for example. Almost all writers from the American South (and especially William Faulkner) can be viewed in this light. If little space is given in the current bibliography to canonical English writers who engage at some level with slavery, it is because the critical literature on their work is already extensive. More narrowly, in the English-speaking world “slavery in literature” includes the writings of slaves and former slaves, as well as works written about slavery by non-slaves. Though the field is dominated by American works, British, Caribbean, and postcolonial writers are also significant. Temporally the field includes the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with a significant engagement by later writers with the legacy of slavery. Only one later genre, however, the neo-slave narrative, is formally connected to the literary tradition of the 19th-century slave narratives. “Literature” is a capacious category in this field and is not confined to conventional belles lettres (novels, plays, poetry) but includes significant examples of oratory, addresses, letters, folk material, minstrelsy and life-writings. There is also a dynamic relationship between literary criticism and creative writing, and between popular blockbusters and the academy. Controversies over popular works have been a spur to the writing of both novels and scholarly works. Scholarship on slavery may appear in works concerning African American, Caribbean or English literature, and despite the exponential expansion of the field since the 1980s there is no single bibliography to be recommended. Nor is there a single journal devoted to slavery in literature.

Article.  8896 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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