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Proclamation of Emancipation, [New York]: L.N. Rosenthal, 327 Walnut Street, 1865.
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What were the so-called "real distinctions" that Jefferson thought separated blacks from whites?
The terms "memory, reason, and imagination" would have been particularly significant for Enlightenment thinkers who had been influenced by Bacon's belief that all human understanding could be classified into exactly those three categories.
In terms of imagination, Jefferson saw blacks as inferior not only to whites, but to Native Americans as well.
The Indians, with no advantages . . . will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry-.-Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.
By far the most important of the three types of understanding, however, was reason. While conceding that most slaves "indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society" Jefferson went on to remark:
Yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad.
Jefferson even used his observation that slaves were disposed to sleep when not at work as evidence of their lack of a capacity for reason.
In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.
The fact that Jefferson chose to describe the sleeping African-American as "an animal whose body is at rest" seems, in this context, more than coincidental. The belief that blacks performed poorly in two of these three categories would have weighed heavily in the mind of a man like Jefferson, who placed such a high value on these concepts that he had organized his own extensive library into sections based on "memory," "reason," and "imagination."
While it would be hard to overstate the importance of reason in 18th century thought in England and America, rationality did not rule alone The ability to feel and express sentiment was also regarded by Jefferson and other "enlightened" thinkers of that time as an important characteristic of civilized human beings .
In his book, Sentimental Democracy, Andrew Burstein argues that Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers believed that human beings were "at once sentient and rational" and thus "needed to maintain a proper balance between these two facets of their behavioral system in order to achieve happiness." According to Jefferson, blacks failed to live up to this standard as well. He observed: "They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation."
A creature of "sensation" rather than "sentiment" would not only be incapable of true love, but also of morality. As Burstein explains:
[Adam] Smith described the sensations of sentiment and passion as "affection of the heart from which any action proceeds," and he characterized virtue and propriety, the experiences of grief and joy, taste and judgment, concord and discord, opinions and moral standards. . . . The man of virtuous sentiment, cultivating a sense of duty, overcame the impulse of self-love through reason principle, and conscience--by reflecting on the precariousness of existence and discovering "the man within."
Jefferson might have wondered how slaves could learn "virtue and propriety" if, as he claimed: "Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them"? And since the man of sentiment learns virtue through the action of reason on emotion, how could an African-American ever live up to the 18th century conception of the man of sensibility?
Although Jefferson assumed that the perceived inferiority of blacks to whites might only indicate they were a separate "genus," there were other writers willing to argue African-Americans were a separate species and support for this view continued to be gathered by the advocates of slavery. As early as 1817, Edward D. Grifin, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey opened a sermon preached to collect money for the benefit of The African School by stating:
I rise to plead the cause of a people who until lately have seldom had an advocate . . . They who have wished to find an apology for the slave-trade . . . have cast the Africans into another species, and sorted them with the ape and the orang-outang. In every plea for the improvement of the African race, this, or an approach to this, is the prejudice with which we have chiefly to contend.
--"A Plea for Africa: A Sermon Preached October 26, 1817, in the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, Before the Synod of New York and New Jersey," (New York: Gould: 1817) 3.
In the 1830s, the field of "craniometry" purported to offer evidence collected from many populations that blacks had smaller brains than whites. The opponents of abolition argued that because blacks were unable to learn, they would never be able to vote intelligently, contribute to the market economy, or even read the Bible.
Comments by Craniometrists
Permanent subjection to a foreign yoke, is the result of an inferior aggregate development of brain, animal, moral and intellectual, in the people subdued, to that possessed by the conquering tribes . . .
Independence, civilisation, and political freedom, are the results of large aggregate size of brain, the moral and intellectual regions predominating in the majority of the people, aided by long cultivation. This combination characterizes the British, Anglo-Americans, and Swiss.
--Samuel Morton, Crania Americana, 1831
The lengthy arguments concerning the intellect of the negroe drawn from history, and the numerous explanations of his mental inferiority, which have at various times been given, (without supposing him of a distinct species,) are rendered totally useless, if it can be shown, that the portion of his brain, which presides over the animal functions, exceeds, to any great extent, that from which the mental endowments arise. Furthermore, although we are not believers in physiognomy, (as a science,) yet we cannot avoid making a remark upon the negro's face, which may not be entirely overlooked--although we may thereby risk the commission of a tautology.
His lips are thick, his zygomatic muscles, large and full* (*"These muscles are always in action during laughter and the extreme enlargement of them indicates a low mind." Lavater)--his jaws large and projecting,--his chin retreating,--his forehead low, flat and slanting, and (as a consequence of this latter character,) his eyeballs are very prominent,--apparently larger than those of white men;--all of these peculiarities at the same time contributing to reduce his facial angle almost to a level with that of the brute--Can any such man become great or elevated?--the history of the Africans will give a decisive answer. Even the ancients were fully aware of this kind of mutual coincidence, between the facial angle, and the powers of the mind: consequently, in their statues of heroes and philosophers, they usually extended the angle to 90 degrees,--making that of the Gods to be 100: beyond which, it cannot be enlarged without deformity. Modern anatomists have fixed the average facial angle of the European at 80--negro 70,--ourang outang 58--all brutes below 70, the average angle of quadrupeds being about 20.. . .
If then it is consistent with science, to believe that the mind will be great in proportion to the size and figure of the brain: it is equally reasonable to suppose, that the acknowledged meanness of the negroe's intellect, only coincides with the shape of his head; or in other words, that his want of capability to receive a complicated education renders it improper and impolitic, that he should be allowed the privileges of citizenship in an enlightened country! It is in vain for the Amalgamationists to tell us that the negroes have had no opportunity to improve, or have had less opportunities than European nations; the public are well aware that three or four thousand years could not have passed away, without throwing advantages in the way of the Africans; yet in all this time, with every advantage that liberty, and their proximity to refined nations could bestow, they have never even attempted to raise themselves above their present equivocal station, in the great zoological chain.
--Richard H. Colfax, Evidence Against the Views of the
Abolitionists, Consisting of Physical and Moral Proofs, of the
Natural Inferiority of the Negroes, 1833
"The political cartoons published in the popular press in the North on the occasion of the Emancipation Proclamation provide a useful way of understanding Northern attitudes towards African-Americans at that time. Accompanying the cartoons are collections of quotations from writers who helped promulgate those stereotypes including Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Jefferson, and southern advocates of slavery.
|"Quashee's Dream of Emancipation" is
a cartoon that appeared in the popular northern publication, Frank Leslies Illlustrated Newspaper, during the Civil
War. What made it funny?
The supposed humor of the cartoon, "Quashee's Dream of Emancipation," was based on the assumption that readers shared the belief that blacks were lazy, unintelligent, and uncivilized. In fact, the very use of the name Quashee would have conjured up a set of racist stereotypes in the minds of 19th century readers.
In his controversial 1849 essay, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" (later slightly expanded and printed as a pamphlet under the title Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, influential British political thinker and writer Thomas Carlyle had criticised England's emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, arguing that blacks were inherently indolent and barbarous and therefore ill-equipped for independence. Carlyle insisted that God, the "Supreme Proprietor" of a business-centered world, gave custody of the earth to those prepared to exploit it to the fullest.
Because Quashee was one of the most popular names among West Indian blacks, Carlyle chose it as a way of referring to all the former slaves of the colony. In this way, the name Quashee came to serve as a shorthand for the popular racist stereotypes of the period.
Although Carlyle's comments provoked a storm of protest from abolitionists both in England and the United States. they were widely circulated with approving comments by proslavery forces in America. After all, Carlyle was simply reiterating myths that had long circulated in America--and which continued to circulate during and even after the Civil War. Because those stereotypes function as the source of the "humor" of "Quashees Dream of Emancipation," the cartoon can be used as a way of understanding the racist stereotypes of that time.
Carlyle and "Quashee"
|. . . Far over the sea, we have
a few black persons rendered extremely “free” indeed.
Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in
pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor
teeth ready for every new work, and the pumpkins cheap as grass
in those rich climates, while the sugar-crops rot round them uncut,
because labor cannot be hired, so cheap are the pumpkins; and
at home we are required but to rasp from the breakfast loaves
of our own English laborers some slight “differential sugar-duties,”
and lend a poor half million, or a few poor millions now and then,
to keep that beautiful state of matters going on. ***
The West Indies, it appears, are short of labor, as indeed is very conceivable in those circumstances. Where a black man, by working about half an hour a day (such is the calculation), can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work! Supply and demand, which science says should be brought to bear on him, have an uphill task of it with such a man. Strong sun supplies itself gratis, rich soil in those unpeopled, or half-peopled regions almost gratis; these are his “supply,” and half an hour a day, directed upon these, will produce pumpkin, which is his “demand.” * * *
And now observe, my friends, it was not black quashee, or those he represents, that made those West India Islands what they are, or can, by any hypothesis, be considered to have the right of growing pumpkins there. For countless ages, since they first mounted oozy, on the back of earthquakes, from their dark bed in the ocean deeps, and reeking saluted the tropical sun, and ever onwards till the European white man first saw them some three short centuries ago, those islands had produced mere jungle, savagery, poison-reptiles, and swamp-malaria till the white European first saw them, they were as if not yet created — their noble elements of cinnamon, sugar, coffee, pepper, black and grey, lying all asleep, waiting the white enchanter who should say to them, awake! Till the end of human history and the sounding of the trump of doom, they might have lain so, had quashee and the like of him been the only artists in the game. Swamps, fever-jungles, man-eating Caribs, rattlesnakes, and reeking waste and putrefaction, this had been the produce of them under the incompetent Caribal (what we call Cannibal) possessors, till that time; and quashee knows, himself, whether he could have introduced an improvement. Him, had he been by a miraculous chance wafted thither, the Caribals would have eaten, rolling him as a fat morsel under their tongue; for him, till the sounding of the trump of doom, the rattlesnakes and savageries would have held on their way. It was not he, then; it was another than he! Never by art of his could one pumpkin have grown there to solace any human throat; nothing but savagery and reeking putrefaction could have grown there. These plentiful pumpkins, I say therefore, are not his; no, they are another’s: they are his only under conditions.
All three of the panels on the left side of the cartoon derive at least some of their humor from the notion that blacks are unwilling to work
In the first, Quashee "dreams that massa and he exchange positions." While his master musters a hoe, the former slave and a friend and shown merrily dancing and playing instruments.The image of the capering, banjo-playing slave was a popular way of suggesting that blacks were both lazy and carefree; for example, a similar image appeared in "Butler Hanged-The Negro Freed-On Paper-1863,"Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun, February 1, 1863 commenting on the Emancipation Proclamation. Thomas Jefferson helped perpetuate this stereotype when he wrote:
"A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning . . . Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them."
--Thomas Jefferson, "Query 14," Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784
|The second panel of the cartoon depicts an African American stretched out on the floor in a leisurely fashion, drinking alcohol and reading abolitionist Horace Greeley's newspaper while the lovely white woman who he used to serve now waits on him. The caption: "He dreams that his young missis humbly waits upon him hile he reads the Tribune." In this panel, as in the first, part of the presumed comedy comes from the idea of whites working instead of blacks. Additional comedy--and shock value--would have derived from the idea of a black man married to a white woman. The contrast between her apparent refinement and his lack of civilized manners (note their different modes of dress) would have reenforced the point.|
|Although the African American men depicted in the third panel are working, the caption describes them as employed in "all the light and easy employments of the North." In addition to joking about the supposedly indolent nature of black people, this image also appealed to popular stereotypes about African American's love of finery and attraction to white women.|
The stereotype of the lazy slave is a common element of cartoons on the subject of the Emancipation Proclamation. Below are two examples:
Slavery Defended by One of Its Advocates
|Humane individuals have, from time to time,
freed their slaves . . . The multitude are by no means as well
fed or clothed, and otherwise provided for, as the slaves in their
vicinity. They make but little provision against the inclemency
of winter, and in sickness are often the objects of public charity.
A disposition to live by petty depredations upon society, instead
of by honest industry, and a general depravation of morals, are
characteristic of the caste. Their retrograde tendency is so obvious,
that no doubt is entertained among men of reflection that, but
for the props and checks thrown around them by the laws and usages
of civilization, they would soon relapse into the savage state.***
The African will starve rather than engage in a regular system of agricultural labor, unless impelled by the stronger will of the white man. When thus impelled, experience proves that he is much happier, during the hours of labor in the sunny fields, than when dozing in his native woods and jungles.
-- Samuel Cartwright, "Dr. Cartwright on the Caucasians and the Africans," Debow's Review, Volume 25, Issue 1 pp. 45-56
In two images above, which appear in the right hand column of "Quashee's ream of Emancipation," a comic effect was supposed to be created by the clash between the grand ambitions of the African Americans depicted and the audience's recognition of the limitations of their abilities and status. In the first panel, an African American is courted by admiring politicians and "solicited to stand for Congress," and in the second, "he imagines himself a Brigadier-General nested in a stagebox at Wallach's Theatre." Note that both pictures connect political status and social status. At the same time, these panels probably contained a not-so-subtle warning about the dangers of giving freedom to African-Americans: what would happen if they entered the military and political worlds.
Advocates of Slavery Who Argued that
There is not a single circumstance in the history of the whole of this race which indicates an intellectual appetite beyond an embryonic state.
--John Campbell, Negro-Mania, 1851
Of the many slaves whom I have known capable of reading, I have never known one to read anything but the Bible, and this task they impose on themselves as matter of duty.
-- Chancellor William Harper of South Carolina Comments on the Education of Slaves, 1852.
Slavery educates, refines, and moralizes the masses by separating them from each other, and bringing them into continual intercourse with masters of superior minds, information, and morality. The laboring class of Europe, associating with nothing above them, learn nothing but crime and immorality from each other, and are well described by Mr. Charles Dickens as "a heaving mass of poverty, ignorance, and crime.' Slavery is necessary as an educational institution, and is worth ten times all the common schools of the North. Such common schools teach only uncommonly bad morals, and prepare their inmates to graduate in the penitentiary, as the statistics of crime at the North abundantly prove.
-- George Fitzhugh, "Southern Thought"
In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads to progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately, for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.
-- South Carolina Senator James Henry Hamond, "Cotton is King," Speech Before the United States Senate, March 4, 1858 [Link to AAS Catalog Record. For responses to "Cotton is King" see these catalog records.]
The Africans of this country, in common with minors, imbeciles, and uncivilized persons, have a right to be governed and protected, and to such means of physical comfort and moral improvement as are necessary and compatible with their providential condition. That which it is their right to have as slaves, it is the duty of masters to secure to them.
-- William Andrew Smith, Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery, as Exhibited in the Institution of Domestic Slavery in the United States: with the Duties of Masters to Slaves, 1856 [Link to AAS Catalog Record.]
Negroes are by nature tyrannical in their dispositions; and if allowed, the stronger will abuse the weaker; husbands will often abuse their wives, and mothers their children, so that it becomes a prominent duty of owners and overseers to keep peace, and prevent quarrelling and disputes among them; and summary punishment should follow any violation of this rule.
-- Dr. Robert Collins, "Essay on the Management of Slaves," Debow's Review [Link to AAS Catalog Record]
The term "picturesque" was frequently used to describe African-Americans in the Civil War era. Theories of the picturesque developed by art historians provide different ways of understanding the term, and some critics have even suggested that there is more than one type of "picturesque."
However, the picturesque usually invites the viewer to stand back and contemplate something--or someone--distinctively "other." Determining whether or not a particular example of what might be called the "racial picturesque" is racist may depend on how the concept is used and the type of response it was designed to provoke.
"Picturesque" was a word used not only in articles demeaning African-Americans in the late 19th century, but even in letters written by some freedmen's teachers. Was the teachers' use of the term "picturesque" an indication that they, too, saw the freedmen in stereotyped terms, or was it a way of provoking a sympathetic response from those reading the descriptions?
Edwin Forbes, "Officers' Cooks
The mantle of daily industry--"domestic work," as we may call it--fell upon the shoulders of the colored men or boys, for the drudgery of camp-life came to them alone, and the most laborious duties were performed by them with a never-failing cheerfulness that is seldom found in positions of servitude. I sometimes heard it stated that their good will came from a feeling of emancipation from arbitrary masters, and also because of the chance to earn a few independent dollars; but I often watched them closely under the most toilsome and exasperating circumstances, and was convinced that in most cases the willingness came of conscientious scruples to do the best they knew how for those engaged in what they regarded as the fight for their freedom.
The officers' cooks and servants were varied in appearance, but at all times picturesque in costume and figure. With peculiar characteristics, they sometimes caused anxiety to their employers, but the amusement which their droll ways and odd sayings occasioned more than made amends. Some of the colored men were the experienced servants of good families, and were adept in the administering of ease and comfort. Others were field hands; yet, if not trained like the house servants, they were eager to be satisfactory, and the rough elements of cooking gleaned from plantation kitchens served a fair purpose. In winter camp the cooks' duties were easily performed; for, as the commissary was near by with necessary stores, sold at about cost price, the officers' tables were readily supplied.
The cook's kitchen was placed behind the quarters of the officers, and was usually a canvas-covered log house with a great stone chimney at the rear end. Around the sides of the kitchen hung cooking utensils, and in the corner stood the mess-chest, from whose capacious interior necessary condiments were supplied. And here, on a bright fire of pine logs, most appetizing dishes were cooked. Chickens were roasted to a turn, and when good fortune directed a rabbit to the hand of a colored cook a stew was furnished whose savor was long talked of by the partakers. ham and eggs, griddle cakes, and all concoctions which the surroundings could produce or willing hands prepare were placed before the officers.
During a summer campaign the commissary supplies were generally with the main wagon train; and the necessity of supplying the mess, in a great measure, by what could be found from day to day made the duties of the cooks quite arduous. Temporary supplies were generally carried on pack-mules or in a mess-cart, the latter being found during a march at the rear of the column. A good cook was apt to be a good forager, and secured many delicacies along the roadside farm-houses that a less persistent and appreciative person would miss. When camp was pitched the best the mess-chest afforded would be quickly converted into something palatable for the table, and the inevitable coffee, which served the double purpose of quenching thirst and supplying nutriment, was never forgotten.
The officers' body servants were as a rule colored boys, and like all youth,were sometimes careless and forgetful. In a general way, however, they served good purpose, and their natural grotesqueness and sense of humor afforded much amusement for the men.
Instances of bravery among the colored servants were not rare. At the battle of Cedar (or Slaughter's) Mountain, Knapp's battery, which was posted near the left of the line, had a colored man and boy in service as cooks. When action commenced they were ordered to the rear, but the man said: "No, Cap'n; I'll stay with you and fight." He worked faithfully at a gun during the greater part of the engagement, and when danger seemed almost passed the poor fellow's head was taken off by a solid shot. The boy had thus far steadily and efficiently carried water for the gunners from Cedar Creek, in the rear of the battery, but when he saw the mutilated body of his comrade he became terror-stricken, and fled to the rear.
--Edwin Forbes, "Chapter XXXVIIII. Officers' Cooks and Servants," Thirty Years After: An Artist's Memoir of the Civil War, (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1890, 149-150 [Link to AAS Catalog Record]
When Homer's painting of three African-American mule-drivers relaxing during a break from work was first exhibited in 1865, Americans immediately responded to "The Bright Side" as a comic work. When a slightly modified version of the image was published as a woodcut the following year in Our Young Folks, a children's magazine, it was described in the accompanying text as an example of Homer's "skilful . . . delineation of negro characteristics."
In both cases, viewers responded to the depiction of the resting muleteers as an embodiment of the traditional stereotype of the lazy negro. The article in Our Young Folks observes: "Something to eat, nothing to do, and plenty of sunshine constitute a Contraband's Paradise." (If you would like to consider for yourself whether the nature of the teamster's job would make him welcome an opportunity for rest between assignments, consider Civil War illustrator, Edwin Forbes' lithograph, "The Supply Train.")
The text in Our Young Folks goes on to tell what it claims to be the story of the person who posed for this picture, here dubbed "Mr. Bones" to evoke the image of the central figure of the minstrel show. The article strives to create a comic effect by appealing to familiar 19th century stereotypes of African-Americans as ignorant, superstitious, and fearful.
Definitions of the Picturesque
PICTURESQUE, a [Fr. pittoresque; It. pittoresco; from the L. pictura, or pictor. In English, this would be picturish.] Expressing that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture, natural or artificial; striking the mind with great power or pleasure in representing objects of vision, and in painting to the imagination any circumstance or event as clearly as if delineated in a picture.
-- American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828
The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller, is the pursuit of his object—the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view. We suppose the country to have been unexplored. Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in an agreeable suspense. The love of novelty is the foundation of this pleasure. Every distant horizon promises something new […] new objects, and new combinations of them, are continually adding something to our fund, and enlarging our collection: while the same kind of object occurring frequently, is seen under various shapes.
--William Gilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 1792
Beauty and picturesqueness are indeed evidently founded on very opposite qualities; the one on smoothness, the other on roughness; the one on gradual, the other on sudden variation; the one on ideas of youth and freshness, the other on those of age, and even of decay.
--Uvedale Price, On the Picturesque, 1810
In The Stones of Venice Ruskin wrote that the "whole function of the artist in the world is to be a seeing and feeling creature; to be an instrument of such tenderness and sensitiveness, that no shadow, no hue, no line, no instantaneous and evanescent expression of the visible things around him, nor any of the emotions which they are capable of conveying to the spirit which has been given him, shall either be left unrecorded, or fade from the book of record" (11.49). The lesser mode of the picturesque, however, necessarily reduces the artist to a seeing creature, forcing him to ignore the emotional — human -- implications of his subject. This form of art, which requires an unhealthy dissociation of faculties in the artist, can only appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of fragmented modern man. An example of the immoral abstraction implicit in the lower picturesque appears in Sir Charles Bell's Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression in the Fine Arts, which Ruskin several times quotes in his Modern Painters: "In Roman Catholic countries the church-door is open, and a heavy curtain excludes the light and heat; and there lie about those figures in rags, singularly picturesque" (6th ed., London, 1872, p. 16). Uvedale Price relates an anecdote which can serve as a parable here: One day when Reynolds and Wilson, the two painters, were looking at a scene, Wilson tried to point out a particular detail to his companion. "'There,' said he 'near those houses‹therel where the figures are.' — though a painter, said Sir Joshua, I was puzzled. I thought he meant statues, and was looking upon the tops of the houses; for I did not at first conceive that the men and women we plainly saw walking about, were by him only thought of as figures in a landscape" (An Essay on the Picturesque, 379n). For Ruskin, [230/231] taking delight in figures in rags corrupted the artist and audience alike. . . .
In contrast to the "surface-picturesque" (6.16), which dwells on texture at the expense of emotion, the noble picturesque is produced by "an expression of sorrow and old age, attributes which are both sublime" (6.10). In other words, since the "higher condition of art . . . depends upon largeness of sympathy" (6.19), the noble picturesque, the form practiced by Turner, arises, not from neglect of the meaning of the scene depicted, but from concentration upon it. It is produced, then, by expression "of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart. Nor only unpretending, but unconscious. If there be a visible pensiveness in the building, as in a ruined abbey, it becomes, or claims to become, beautiful; but the picturesqueness is in the unconscious suffering" (6.14-l5). The noble picturesque, a form of the gentler sublime, is an associated, subjective aesthetic pleasure which demands the projection of human characteristics upon old buildings. Indeed, old buildings are to be considered as old, noble men. Much of this sad, pathetic sublimity is created by age. In the first volume Ruskin had written of the beauties of age itself, and these are apparently part of the sublime emotion which creates the noble picturesque: "There is set in the deeper places of the heart such affection for the signs of age that the eye is delighted even by injuries which are the work of time; not but that there is also real and absolute beauty in the forms and colours so obtained" (3.204).
--George P. Landau, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin
One of the most insistent impulses of such picturesque art is the multiplication of narrative strands, and the sketches are representative in this as well. Both characterize themselves reflexively as narratives of discovery, presenting pictures of things their writers have never seen before to Euro-American citizens of the republic who have not seen them either. In this, they are examples of the narrative convention of the picturesque excursion—‘in pursuit of the picturesque’—with which an emergent Euro-American culture set out to survey the aesthetic resources of the nation and its peoples.
Picturesque art, as Martin Price observes, is ‘a drama more than a composition’—which is to say that it enacts a drama of composition—‘and our response is to the presentation of character rather than to the internal coherence of the object.’
Beauty is discovered in “the near, the low, the common”; in forms not yet completed, in forms dissolved by age or deformed by violence; in the elusive harmonies between forms apparently unlike. For American versions of the picturesque, eclecticism defines a world in which nothing is purely beautiful or purely sublime, but also a world in which nothing is without a measure of beauty and sublimity, however impure or incomplete or transient.
--John Conron, American Picturesque, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press: 2000), 6 [Link to AAS Catalog Record]
Freedmen's teachers sometimes described incidents involving African-Americans in painterly terms, almost seeming to invite those reading the letters to pause and appreciate the picturesque quality of the scenes. Does this ability to step back and enjoy the sensation of aesthetic delight at the sight of people in difficult circumstances suggest an emotional and moral detachment on the part of the teachers? Or is their representation of these scenes as appealing pictures a way of expressing their own attraction to or sympathy for the freedmen, and a way of provoking a sympathetic response from those reading the descriptions? The answer to this question depends both on one's understanding of the picturesque, and the ways in which the teachers deploy the picturesque in their letters.
Since most of the teachers of the New England Educational Association were white men and women from Massachussetts who found themselves among African-Americans in the South, perhaps it should not be surprising if the novelty of their surroundings sometimes made them seem picturesque. However, if the descriptions below seem merely to express an aesthetic delight in the sight of the freedmen's "irregular" or ragged condition, then these excerpts from freedmen's letters probably represent what Ruskin would call "the surface picturesque." If, on the other hand, the scenes are described in a way that seems to express an appreciation of character, or to communicate sympathy on the part of the viewer and/or provoke feeling on the part of the reader, then these texts may serve as examples of Ruskin's "moral picturesque."
Examples of the "Picturesque" in Writing by Freedmen's Teachers
After dark, Sarah and I took a pour prendre conge stroll, when we longed for you all to bear us company. Fires were blazing in the fire-places of the lonely chimneys, and picturesque groups were crooning over the embers. Out on the plain blazed fires, the centre of just such groups as you have heard of “Groups for a painter!” As we drew near one circle, we Oh’d for a Darley, a Walter Brown,2 or a lead pencil. Facing us, sat an old man, with his withered, whisker-shaded face almost lost under his slouched hat; with his shoulders comfortably and cozily raised, as if to fondle his good-natured cheeks; and with his hands resting on the shoulders of a little child who stood between his knees. Around him stood all ages, sexes, sizes and conditions, but prominent amongst them all was the pomegranate young mother, the young wife of the old man upon whose loving and really lovely face all eyes were fixed, because her hand held the skillet, with its promise of supper. That out-stretched hand, grasping the long iron handle, its kindred in color, the golden steaming corn-cake, the fond and hungry children, the crackling fire, doing its best in a picturesque way, outlining each figure til it became a shining mark, the evening darkness, the desert plain, the long rows of house-deserted chimneys, the water all around and very near, and Sarah and I looking upon it all! . . .
Around one fire the boys had gathered to dance and make merry. The door of a fallen barrack was their springkeeping and upon it they performed their jigs and horn-pipes, time to a variety of strange accompaniments the rapid and regular falling of the hands upon the knees, the beating of feet, or the pleasing accompaniment of a tenor and base voice singing alternate strains of music. Of one of their Union songs I remember a few words “Richmond town is burning down.” “High diddle diddle inctum inctum ah.” The byplays and interludes were as good as the play. If a well-to-do dancer had his coat-sleeve pulled or was threatened with a tripe be turned from his partner, and almost before he was missed was rolling and tumbling with his teaser in the sand. Then all were challenged when one boy said, “You can’t spell every.” “Ev -ev ry ry- evry,” said one and another each trying, all interested, and those who could say, with the pride of sure knowledge, “Ev- ev, Er-er- Ever-y,” looking, for a moment, every inch the pedagogue. Spelling is with them an exciting pastime. When at work toting the barrack-boards to the wharf, men, women and children spelled aloud for their own private ears, though we heard now and then “B-o-a-r-d, Board,” “H-o-u-s-e, House.”
Under the fallen roofs some of the evening fires were built. in doors and out many families were preparing for a feast of rats! Under every barrack the dogs have found more rats than they had power to worry. One hundred and sixty huge rats were found under one barrack. Let many or few come to light, when the floors are raised, the negroes eagerly seize them, skin them, cook them and eat them. “Oh, they taste like chickens,” you are told. “What are you cooking, Aunty?” “Some calls em squirrels, but they ‘r altogether too tame for squirrels; I call em pigs. They ran all round my head last night, crying ‘Peat weet.’ They’ve lived long enough on my good things to be good eating. One night they ate up the whole of my ration of meal and meat, and now I’m going to take my pay. I reckon they’r as good eatin as possum. They only eat bread, and such like. I don’t see any-body around here that won’t eat em, any way. They say no, at first, but I have not seen any-one who did not say yes, after the first taste.”
* * *
It was a very pretty sight to look upon the confused crowd of the animate and inanimate floating at our side. Barrel-heads and human heads, canvas-bags without number, all in-doors turned out of doors; looking strangely “not at home.” All enlivened by dashes of brilliant color on the head of or shoulders, and in the faces too, for there is an amazing variety in the hue African. Give me some vermilion, some blue, and some white, and you shall see a tint to be proud of. Lo, behold, this is the blood that runs in my family. Now give me some cadmium, golden cadmium, the very “Rays of the Sun’ ‘—Dont be afraid to take too much of it. No matter if ‘tis the most costly of colors shall it not picture the blood of the F.F.V’s. The blood of the F.F.V. ‘s, enriched and beautified by its admixture with the sang d’Afrique? Give me some Lake too, some. Prussian blue and some white. But I wont neglect the darker skins. The warm chesnut nut color, shining as the nut from which it borrows its name; enriched and glowing as no white complexion can be with its rosy blood. Purples that might well be called “Royal!’ ‘—and Browns of many shades— I notice as much individuality in the faces of Negroes as I do in those of the whites. Their features are so much lost in the single shadow with which Nature has veiled their faces, that I once fancied that they would be bard to find and recognize. Every shade that light drops upon our faces lifts some feature into greater prominence. But black Sue looks herself as well as white Sue.
The people, being mostly employed in working on the farm, came in small parties to school through the day: in the evening, the larger portion came, —a dark mass, seen by the light of one candle. They sometimes staid till ten o'clock; the scholars sitting on the floor when the seats were full; following, with fingers uncouthly pointed, the words a neighbor read, and their faces already slowly but surely getting illuminated with the light breaking slowly but surely from the strange page before them. Their books in many cases were worn as constantly as their clothes; and when they went to labor, dressed in every variety of grotesque raggedness:— the ploughers, men and women too, seated on their "condemned" horses or mules,—often the soiled end of their much-valued book would be seen protruding from a pocket; and while for a moment resting themselves, or their poor worn-out animals, the book was sure to be on duty. To say that these refugees are all angels or intellectual wonders, were to be absurd; but experience has taught me that they are capable, in an unusual degree, of being instructed, not only from their fair intellectual ability, but from their docility and affection.
The Sunday after our arrival we attended service at the Baptist Church. The people came in slowly for they have no way of knowing the hour, except by the sun. By eleven they had all assembled, and the church was well filled. They were neatly dressed in their Sunday attire, the women mostly wearing clean, dark frocks, with white aprons and bright-colored head-handkerchiefs. Some had attained to the dignity of straw hats with gay feathers, but these were not nearly as becoming nor as picturesque as the handkerchiefs. The day was warm, and the windows were thrown open as if it were summer, although it was the second day of November. It was very pleasant to listen to the beautiful hymns, and look from the crowd of dark, earnest faces within, upon the grove of noble oaks without. The people sang, “Roll, Jordan, roll,” the grandest of all their hymns. There is a great, rolling wave of sound through it all.
“Mr. Fuller settin’ on de Tree ob Life,
“Oh, roll, Jordan, roll! oh, roll, Jordan, roll!
“Little chilen, learn to fear de Lord,
“Oh, march, de angel, march! oh, march, de
The “Mr. Fuller” referred to was their former minister, to whom they seem to have been much attached. He is a Southerner, but loyal, and is now, I believe, living in Baltimore. After the sermon the minister called upon one of the elders, a gray-headed old man, to pray. His manner was very fervent and impressive, but his language was so broken that to our unaccustomed ears it was quite, unintelligible. After the services the people gathered in groups outside, talking among themselves, and exchanging kindly greetings with the superintendents and teachers. In their bright bandkerchiefs and white aprons they made a striking picture under the gray-mossed trees. We drove afterward a mile farther, to the Episcopal Church, in which the aristocracy of the island used to worship. It is a small white building, situated in a fine grove of live-oaks, at the junction of several roads. On one of the tombstones in the yard is the touching inscription in memory of two children, — “Blessed little lambs, and art thou gathered into the fold of the only true shepherd? Sweet lillies of the valley, and art thou removed to a more congenial soil?” The floor of the church is of stone, the pews of polished oak. It has an organ, which is not so entirely out of tune as are the pianos on the island. One of the ladies played, while the gentlemen sang, — old-fashioned New-England church-music, which it was pleasant to bear, but it did not thrill us as the singing of the people had done.
Here is a quaint 'Hyme' or 'Praise' which I once heard sung in a log cabin, crowded with earnest devout people--a feeble fire flickering on the hearth--a tall slender woman holding gracefully above her head a torch of light wood, which shone on the faces and the curious objects about the room--making a most striking picture--The swaying motion of the body and the music are necessary to a clear idea of the effect of these 'Himes'
You must watch the Sun
This man born in degradation, this stranger brought by slavery into our midst, is hardly recognized as sharing the common features of humanity. His face appears to us hideous, his intelligence limited, and his tastes low; we almost take him for some being intermediate between beast and man.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
Among the terms which turn up repeatedly in Civil War era descriptions of African-Americans are "droll," "comic," "ludicrous," "picturesque" and "grotesque." Oddly, these terms are also frequently combined with one another, so images seen as "picturesque" or "grotesque" are also regarded as humorous. But what exactly do these words mean when used in connection with race?
Definitions of the grotesque vary, but some of the meanings commonly assigned to the term seem to reflect racial stereotypes of the late nineteenth century that viewed blacks as not fully human. The exaggerated features, slavish or foolish poses often assigned African-Americans in pictoral representations of the period, or the animalistic or child-like behavior ascribed to them in textual representations are all consistent with the idea of the grotesque as "a kind of negative example, the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime. In addition, the fact that images that would normally inspire a sense of horror or sympathy in a viewer were sometimes perceived as comic when the central figure was black suggests the degree to which white Americans in that period regarded African-Americans as "other."
Definitions of the Grotesque
GROTESQUE, GROTESK, (from grotto.) Wildly formed; whimsical; extravagant;of irregular forms and proportions; ludicrous; antic; resembling the figures found in he subterraneous apartments in the ancient ruins of Rome; applied to pieces of sculpture and painting, and to natural scenery; as grotesque painting; grotesque design. Dryden.
Grotesque, Grotesque, n. Whimsical figures or scenery. A. In a fantastical manner
--.American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828
By the word grottesco the Renaissance, which used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one, a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.
--Wolfgang Kaiser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, 1957
It is perhaps easier for us, living in the second half of the twentieth century, to . . . insist on a component of horror or something similar in the grotesque. It may be said that our notion of the grotesque is conditioned by the many examples from modern and contemporary literature of the comic inexplicably combined with the monstrous, of the interweaving of totally (disparate elements, producing a strange and often unpleasant and unsettling conflict of emotions. Yet there are several writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who emphasize the serious and powerfully unsettling nature of the grotesque. These writers include such unlike natures as John Ruskin and Victor Hugo, Friedrich Schlegel and Walter Bagehot, but they all have in common the tendency to see in the grotesque something more than outlandish exaggeration or wild burlesque. Even the classical-minded Victorian Bagehot, who makes no bones, in his essay "Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; or, Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art in English Poetry" (1864), about preferring pure to ornate and both to grotesque art, is ready to admit the legitimacy of the grotesque as a kind of negative example, the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime.
--Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, 1972
|Although definitions of the term vary, many writers agree that "grotesque" often refers to something--or someone--created from an unnatural mixture of elements: a plant/animal, a beast/man. Tocqueville's observation that "we almost take [the slave] for some intermediate between beast and man" reflected some of the theories of racial differences put forth in 18th and 19th century America (see above) and helps explain why people sometimes described the freedmen as "grotesque" and produced pictoral representations of them that exaggerated their features in outlandish ways.|
The article excerpted below seems to start out by objecting to the popularity of stereotyped images of African-Americans. But as it continues, it's language seems to emphasize the freedmen as adoes it go on to emphasize the humanity of the freedmen, or to represent them as a grotesque spectacle, with the writer commenting that the steamer "literally jammed with niggers, who grinned and chatted like so many monkeys."
The word "grotesque" is also associated with a wild or exaggerated appearance, a look that Philip Thompson describes as "the other side of the coin to the beautiful and sublime."
The lithograph below, Max Rosenthal's "The Dawn of Liberty," appeared in 1864, the year before the Civil War came to an end.
At a time when many Americans were seeking out parallels between the war for independence and the war between the North and the South, the decision to depict a moment from the revolutionary era probably made good business sense.
And yet, consider the contrast between the representation of the young boys in the picture, whose facial expression and bearing seem expressive of intelligence, independence, and civility, and the grovelling pose and grotesque facial expression of the African-American stationed behind General Gage.
Why would a lithographer working in the north during the Civil War, depicting a scene about American independence at a moment in history when a battle was taking place ostensibly to bring about a new "dawn of liberty" suggest such an unflattering contrast?
Interestingly, a year later, Rosenthal would produce a lithograph of "The Emancipation Proclamation" depicting African-Americans in what seem to be more sympathetic terms.
In the forefront of the picture immediately below a white officer is shown being transported to land on the back of a freedman. Although the image also shows a large number of white troops carrying their fellow-soldiers, the accompanying article introduces the story as a "ludicrous incident" and goes on to mention only the "contraband wharf."
An earlier section of the same article describes the work of a landing party as it explores newly occupied territory in Beaufort, South Carolina. It describes a deserted plantation where the artist had seen
Books scattered around, ladies hoops, beds ripped open--in a word, the wretched slaves had shown to what a depth of depravity slavery plunges the negro race.
While the writer described slavery as the cause of the problem, his characterization of the slaves as "depraved" contrasts in an interesting way with the image of the smiling contraband carrying the officer to shore. This contradictory idea of the innocent savage seems typical of representations of African-Americans in the Civil War period.
Below are samples of two articles published in illustrated Northern periodicals during the Civil War as well as an excerpt from a book published after the war by an artist who had provided illustrations for newspapers during the fighting. All three depict moments that would normally provoke a feeling of distress: the separation of husbands and wives as men depart for war, the march of tired troops through mud, and the torment of a man who is enclosed in a coffin and told he is to be shot. And yet, all three are represented in a light-hearted fashion, clearly because the central characters in these stories are African-American.
How can we make sense of the fact that ideas and images that are horrifying to us passed as comedy? Does it suggest the degree to which white Americans saw black Americans as something other than human beings like themselves? Did it suggest a discomfort with African-Americans--or with their own treatment of African-Americans?
The quotations below offer some possible ways of understanding these puzzling phenomenon of a comic response to depictions of events that would ordinarily be regarded as tragic or at least painful. Read the theories, and then consider how you might interpret the examples that follow.
Making Sense of Our Responses to the Grotesque
We may well ask ourselves what our response to this passage [of grotesque description of a family in Samuel Beckett's Watts] is, or ought to be. The question is likely to arise because chances are that the reader's reaction will be somewhat confused, or at least divided. He will presumably respond to the tragic, disgusting or deformed nature of the unfortunate Lynches with a certain amount of horror, pity—perhaps even nausea. On the other hand the undoubtedly comic aspect of the description will rather induce him to respond with amusement or mirth. Indeed, it may be difficult to resolve this conflict in response. Re-reading may serve only to reinforce what is essentially a clash between incompatible reactions—laughter on the one hand and horror or disgust on the other. In seeking to explain this peculiar mixture in our response, we might point to a similar clash in the text itself, between—on the most obvious level—the gruesome or horrifying content and the comic manner in which it is presented. And in searching for words to convey this clash we should probably come up—along with a number of other more or less accurate descriptions—with the word 'grotesque', if only on the vague basis by which the same word in phrases such as 'a grotesque scene' conveys the notion of simultaneously laughable and horrifying or disgusting. What will be generally agreed upon, in other words, is that 'grotesque' will cover, perhaps among other things, the co-presence of the laughable and something which is incompatible with the laughable.
--Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, 1972
No "we" should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people's pain.
--Susan Sontaag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003
Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being? . . . And you feel naive for asking, since the answer is, self-evidently, People do these things to other people., , , They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people: it was all fun.
--Susan Sontaag on the pictures of Abu Ghraib, "Regarding the Torture of Others," The New York Times, May 23, 2004
From Edwin Forbes’ Thirty Years After: An Artist’s Memoir of the Civil War:
While Forbes sympathized with the offices, his "sense of the ludicrous was aroused at the grotesque appearance of the officers' contraband servants." What was sad when experienced by whites was comic when experienced by African-Americans. And yet, Forbes frequently depicted African-Americans in sympathetic terms in his drawing and writing. As just one example, consider his inspiring lithograph, "The Sanctuary." It is difficult to know how to explain this oscillation between the comic, the heroic, and the tragic. One might say that the different types of representations appealed to different parts of the market for Forbes' art, and yet both images appeared in the same book. Is it possible that Americans responded both to racist stereotypes of African-Americans as grotesque figures and to pathetic--and even occasionally heroic--depictions of blacks?