In this History and Cultures English class we studied the history of Virginia dating back to the 1800s and up until the early 21st century. I have gone through many history classes, but none like this one. I was amazed at all of the things I took away from this class. Instead of an English class, it felt more like a Virginia history class. Because the class was solely based on the place that I have lived my entire life, I felt like I was able to relate to and correlate a lot of stories and folktales I have heard growing up. This class made me feel more connected to Virginia and excited to share the things I have learned.
As a final exam, Dr. Miller had us go back through our previous discussion posts and pick two to elaborate more on. I liked this idea for a final because it gave me the freedom to go into detail on the topics in the class I was most interested in. Below are my two extended responses from novels we had read throughout the semester.
The representation of slavery in The Known World is undoubtedly different than the representations of slavery in Swallow Barn and In Ole Virginia. The Known World has a unique take on the representation of slavery, written in the postmodern era. Edward P. Jones articulately captures what the true life of a slave entailed and the inhumane experiences they had encountered. This representation varies drastically from writings from the Lost Cause’s romanticization of the era and culture. Books like Swallow Barn and Ol Virginia are a misrepresentation of what enslaved people went through. When comparing the two types of writings, there is a divide in what is accurate and what is falsified, as documented through history.
Before Postmodernism, the influences of the Civil Rights Movement on education, there was Modernism and Lost Cause writings about Antebellum Virginia. Two of these writings, in particular, are Swallow Barn and Ole Virginia. These two books depict a misrepresentation of the true life of enslaved people. The outlook of what Lost Causers saw was drastically different than what Antebellum Virginia was really like. In these books, especially in Swallow Barn, the slaves were portrayed as being happy to be owned by their masters. This misrepresentation of slavery was documented in Swallow Barn. In this book, the author describes the slave owner, Frank Meriwether as a kind slave owner that treats his slaves with respect and provides for their every need. The author insisted through the writings that the slaves were given everything they would ever need. There is mention that “he is a kind master, and considerate towards his dependants, for which reason, although he owns many slaves, they hold him in profound reverence, and are very happy under his dominion” (page 28). Statements like these insinuated that slaves liked being slaves. Which from history books, we understand it is far from the truth. In reality, these enslaved people only ever acted happy to be there in order to not be beaten, tortured, or killed. The slaves undoubtedly wanted to leave these plantations; however, these writings make it seem as though they wanted to stay.
Even in Ole Virginia, the slaves in both stories were described as being friends with their slave owners. These stories are embellished to make the reader believe that this time period was a good thing and that we should go back to it. However, as a reader, you are able to detect the subtle hints of embellishments. One being the slave almost drowning in a cold river, and his owner jumping in to save him and risking his own life. As an educated reader, we can see how this can be falsified because of the implications that ensue. Slaves were thought of as property and used as an economic tool. Their life was seen as nothing but a machine to these slave owners. Yes, slaves cost a lot and were considered part of their owner’s wealth, but not something a slave owner would risk his life over. During the drowning scene, the slave owner jumped in the water. The author described their relationship as being friends, and that this act was out of friendship and love. A slave owner and an enslaved individual do not have this type of relationship. This is a very unusual act of a slave owner to risk his own life for the sake of a slave. The slave may be his wealth and investment; however, a slave owner would never risk his own life over a “monetary investment”. Thus, this scene shows some embellishment of what true life was like during that time period.
These two books differ from The Known World, because of the vast differences and coincidence in historical writings. Edward P. Jones makes an interesting decision to use a third-person narrative to convey the different types of characters from objective points of view. The Known World’s representation of the experiences of enslaved people changes to determine which character the narrator switches to. As a reader, we are not only given a single point of view but instead many. The characters in The Known World give a well-rounded understanding of how life was like as a slave and slave owner. There are many different points of view ranging from slave owners, slaves, freed slaves, and others that want change for the world they are living in. Two of these characters are Winifred and Skiffington. On page 43, they received a young girl as a wedding gift from a family member. In previous chapters we the reader are told that this couple is against slavery and does not want to own slaves; however, they run into a predicament when they are given Minerva. As previously written in my discussion post, “the couple also did not want to sell or give the young girl away because they did not know what would happen to her and the potential that she would end up being mistreated”. So, we see this change in view, and the reasons this couple has to justify their acts to feel better about themselves. Jones even goes on to mention “despite vowing never to own a slave, Skiffington had no trouble doing his job to keep the institution of slavery going, an institution even God himself had sanctioned throughout the Bible” (43). Winifred now has come to the decision of keeping the young girl even though she has a family, and instead of freeing her, they keep her as a daughter.
“Unlike Swallow Barn and Ole Virginia, the slaves in The Known World, made it known that slaves felt restricted like they were stuck on the property and variables their ill-treatment” (Discussion Post). Another example is when Townsend’s buy their enslaved son from William Robbins, “Rita begs them to take her with them because she feels trapped and this is her only chance to escape to freedom”(Discussion Post). This shows how inhumane and brutal the life of a slave really was.
The differences in these books are very apparent in how they represent slavery in historical context. Antebellum Virginia described in Swallow Barn and In Ole Virginia represent a completely false sense of reality, whereas The Known World gives a more accurate portrayal of the actual hardships slaves went through. Books, about Antebellum Virginia, published during the Lost Cause era have a distinct view of slavery than what is taught in education other historical writings. The influence of the Civil Rights Movement caused a shift in writing that led to more books and writings like The Known World which demonstrates a more accurate description of history. Comparing the two types of writings, there is a divide in what is accurate and what is falsified, as documented through history.
The literature of Virginia provides new or unique insights into the culture of the state by providing imagery and understanding of the visual representations of things we still see in Virginia. Some of these things are plantations, magazines, the idea of a southern gentleman, and southern pride. Two forms of Virginia literature are Swallow Barn and The Known World. These two works have a lot of visual imagery included that we can relate to the culture we still see in Virginia.
Swallow Barn includes visual imagery of the plantation. In these descriptions, the plantation is described as almost as if it is a picture-perfect painting. Scenes of the plantation in Swallow Barn are described as “a brook glides at a snail’s pace towards the river… covered in green moss and across this stream is thrown a rough bridge, and not far below, an aged sycamore twists its complex roots about a spring, at the point of confluence of which and the brook, a squadron of ducks have a cruising ground, where they may be seen at any time of the day turning up their tails to the skies, like unfortunate gunboats driven by the head in a gale.” (Swallow Barn pg 29). In Swallow Barn, the Virginia plantations are described as beautiful places where everything is perfect. Whereas the plantations described in The Known World have a drastically different viewpoint and representation. The plantations are described as brutal and inhumane sites that haunt individuals for years and decades later. One of the last scenes in The Known World describes a map of the Townsend plantation made by Pricilla, Jamie, and Alice. Calvin, Caldonias’ brother, describes the map in amazement, “there is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a barn, not a chicken, not a horse, or person” (385). Although the map is beautiful as artwork, there is suffering behind its representation. In both of these books, Virginia plantations are seen as these beautifully constructed mansions, but they both represent the hardship of enslaved people. These enslaved people are the backbone of these plantations and are the reason they functioned.
Now, in the present time, these plantation houses are bustling buildings that are being run to gain monetary funds. These houses are used for things such as museums, weddings, wineries, horse properties, and other functions. These plantation houses are not always seen as the historical tragedies they should represent, but instead are admired for their beauty and architecture of southern homes. These picture-like descriptions of plantations in literature have started to outway the true representation of Virginia’s history and culture.
Virginia literature also has an impact on current forms of media like magazines. In Swallow Barn, there is mention of these slave owners throwing extravagant parties/banquets with everyone in town where there are tons of food and drinks. There are also many small descriptions of food in The Known World even though they are not that significant. Some being when Skiffington travels from Mildred’s house to Robbin’s plantation. Both women offer him homecooked meals even though he is not hungry. These descriptions of extravagant food and there always is food on the table is part of Virginia culture. In Virginia, there is always an immense amount of food at any function or family member’s home. Virginia literature also has an effect on magazines. For example, Southern Living is an entire magazine designated to Southern styled food and recipes. Each page is comprised of pictures of large wooden tables filled with an overabundance of food. The Southern view of food and culture is based on the abundance of food illustrated in Virginia literature.
Two other cultural aspects Virginia literature has impacted are the ideas of the southern gentleman and southern pride. For instance in Swallow Barn, Kennedy describes Frank Meriwhether’s character as “good cheer and a good-tempered both tell well upon him” (page 25). He is seen as a well dressed and prideful southern gentleman. Virginia literature caused this cultural shift of having this pride a man should have to be a southern gentleman. For example, instead of the description of Frank as being an aggressive overseer, Kennedy describes him as this well-liked respectful man that liked to show off his wealth. Jones also portrays this ideal of a southern gentleman when describing Skiffington. In the beginning, Skiffigton is described as a God-fearing man who is against slavery and what it stands for. He is seen as a family man who is respected among his community. Whereas later in the book we see his true colors when he shoots Mildred to capture a runaway slave. Virginia literature had a cultural impact on how men should act. We as Virginians have adopted this idea of a southern gentleman as being well dressed, wealthy, chivalrous, and are well mannered.
In conclusion, Virginia literature has had a major impact on our culture. We have many traditions that incorporate the descriptions found in Virginia literature from the early 1800s to the early 2000s. Swallow Barn and The Known World have a lot of visual imagery included that we can relate to the culture we still see in Virginia. Although it might not be the same, our culture has adapted and evolved with time and experience.