Caroline Lee Hentz (1800-1856)
Contributing Editor: Anne Jones
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most students will find it easy to dismiss the arguments, the rhetoric, and the writing in this tendentious chapter. What can make things initially more interesting is a careful analysis of the tactics Hentz is so obviously--or maybe not so obviously--using on her readers. What's the point of the setting, in a small village, on a Saturday night? What is she appealing to with her description of the landlord as an "Indian" looking man? What about those "delineators of the sable character" (1904)? The dying young woman's function can't be missed; but what about the Northern gentleman who accompanies Moreland as he carries her bundle?
Analysis of certain passages invites at least some debate, opening the issues beyond the question of slavery and encouraging students to make argumentative distinctions. What about Grimby's self-contradictory claims (a free country where all must conform, a loss of distinction that means loss of difference); does Hentz have a viable point here? And what about the domestic care versus public welfare point? Are these issues necessarily tied to a defense of slavery?
It could be useful, too, to have students rewrite the story from the point of view of another character. Is Albert having private thoughts of a different sort? Could a sentence like "I wish I may find everybody as well off as I am" (1905) be interpreted as double-voiced discourse? What is motivating the landlord? How does the young woman feel about the men's charity? What do such imaginative efforts show us when we look again at Hentz's point of view strategies?
These discussions raise the question of how we can understand-- instead of demonize-- people who actively supported slavery, who unashamedly proclaimed black racial inferiority, and who believed, like Moreland, in a clearly hierarchical, authoritarian society. Or should we try to understand such positions? Students may discover in thinking about Hentz that their opposition to slavery and racism has never really been thought through. This chapter will give them the chance to do that.
I might start with Bertram Wyatt-Brown's words from Southern Honor: "It is hard for us to believe that Southerners ever meant what they said of themselves. How could they so glibly reconcile slaveholding with pretensions to virtue? . . . [Yet] apart from a few lonely dissenters, Southern whites believed (as most people do [emphasis added]) that they conducted their lives by the highest ethical standards" (3). What standards does Hentz invoke? Which do you accept? Which do you reject, and why?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
These are fairly self-evident, I think, particularly when read in the context of abolitionist writing in the anthology. The chapter may be unsettling to students who come to pro-slavery writing with moral certainties in place. Reading pro-slavery arguments together with abolitionist arguments, however, can help them clarify their own positions not only on slavery but also on how to think about the problems of poverty and racism that, unlike slavery, remain unresolved today. I have found students to be very responsive to the early chapters in Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream (New York: 1962), where she eloquently dramatizes the complexity and personal pain of ideological conflict for children and young people, in this case white southern girls who are torn between family and personal values. Faulkner's "Barn Burning" can be read in similar ways.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Clearly Hentz is working within conventions-- clichés-- of writing that she feels will work rhetorically to persuade and soften her readers. Students might find it fun to identify what they see as clichéd language, predictable plotting (what do you suppose will happen to that not-dead twenty-year-old whose memory preoccupies Moreland?). Could there be canny reasons for such lack of originality?
Try asking students who they think the intended audience is. They will probably guess white Northerners. How did they know this? This will take them back to the experience of reading the text to see how the words worked on them. Note, for instance, that Hentz carefully explains "Mars." and the relationship of insult to class (in Southern honor, one could not be insulted by--hence one did not respond to--an inferior). These details suggest she is not preaching to the choir. Are there audiences she would not address? If not, why not? Try asking students to rewrite this for a contemporary audience, with contemporary cultural issues in mind. Or ask them to debate the issue of slavery orally (pro and con). If they resist, ask them to discuss their resistance. If they do not resist, ask them to discuss their lack of resistance.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
First compare Fitzhugh's very male-focused defense of slavery with Caroline Hentz's. Is hers markedly "womanly"? From comparing these texts, what can we learn about the nineteenth-century cultural gender differences that each author assumes and exploits? Is Fitzhugh turning for support to nineteenth-century women's culture when he argues (1914) for the superiority of "domestic" slavery over slavery to capital? Is Hentz doing the same when she compares the public institutions of the North to domestic ones in the South? Next compare these writers' arguments with abolitionists' arguments. How do abolitionists deal with Southern claims about the "hireling's" misery and the slave's relative comfort? About the variety of treatment slaves received? About the emotional relations with slaves? Slave narratives make an excellent comparison also; see Harriet Jacobs, in particular.