Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic
by Erskine Clarke
Yale University Press, 2007
(624 pages, $20.00, paperback)
reviewed by Robert Elder
Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic is a study of a small group of families, both black and white, in one Georgia county, in the decades before the Civil War. At that time and in that place, the black families were enslaved to the white families, living under the peculiar institution that represents the original sin in the national narrative of America as Eden. The book recently won the Bancroft Prize, one of history’s highest honors.
Clarke tells the story of Presbyterian minister and slaveholder Charles Colcock Jones and his family. Jones was a major figure in the Evangelical “Mission to Slaves” in the South, a movement among southern Evangelicals to bring the gospel to the slave population. The book follows Jones’s lifelong efforts to apply Christian principles to the peculiar institution (and his own plantation) by preaching the mutual duties that slaves and masters owed each other. Masters, preached Jones, owed their protection, benevolence, and fatherly care to their slaves, while slaves owed their masters but one thing: obedience.
Plantations in Liberty County tended to be large, but because of the low-country climate, many slaveholders lived on their plantations only a few months out of the year. It was not uncommon for slaves to be alone on the plantation during much of the unbearably hot summer, with only a slave overseer to manage the work. The rice and cotton that grew on Liberty County plantations were quite profitable because the land was so rich, and over the period that Clarke studies, most of the planters in Liberty County were looking for more slaves, not trying to sell them.
Under these conditions, a uniquely stable slave culture emerged on the low-country plantations, a culture that Clarke reconstructs from the diaries of the slaves’ masters. We meet, through the eyes and words of Jones and his relations, generations of black families: fathers passing on roles such as carpenter or driver (foreman) to their sons, mothers passing on their place in the plantation kitchen to their daughters. One of Clarke’s accomplishments is to illuminate the variation within the slave community: variation of personality, of aspiration, of power, and of powerlessness. In other words, he reveals the slave community as a human community, and one no less complex than the white community it served.
A Moral Struggle
As a young seminarian at Princeton, Charles Jones struggled with the morality of slavery in a place far from his southern home. Through his diaries and his letters to his future wife, Clarke reconstructs the young Southerner’s conflicting feelings, his love of home and family inextricably tangled with an institution that he increasingly believed to be wrong. His love of home and family eventually won out, and Jones returned to Liberty County, married, and began his campaign to bring religion to the slaves.
Early on, Jones believed that his work was in preparation for a time when the slaves would be freed, but one of the dramatic ironies of Clarke’s story is that, as the unforeseen historical emancipation of the slaves approached, Jones became increasingly pro-slavery and increasingly skeptical of slaves’ ability to handle freedom. Jones died in 1863 without seeing his slaves achieve the freedom he had once imagined for them.
The efforts of Christian slaveholders such as Charles Jones to Christianize the peculiar institution inevitably ran up against the hard economic realities of a society in which slaves were viewed as property. As long as times were good in Liberty County, it was easy to preach that slave families should be kept together, that slaves should be well-fed and well-housed, and that white masters and black slaves were equally members of God’s family, owing love to one another. It was harder to carry out this vision when the cotton didn’t sell and masters needed money, money that was invested in slaves and that could only be realized by selling them.
Clarke shows that, because slavery was embedded in an economic system that saw slaves primarily as a form of property, and because even the most sincere Christian owners existed within this system, their efforts to act rightly towards their slaves, to treat them as human beings rather than property, always ran counter to the fundamental assumptions of a slave society. The spiritual bond between brothers and sisters in Christ ran across the line between master and slave. And that bond did not always hold.
Known & Unknown
Despite this fundamental and tragic contradiction, Clarke also illuminates a world in which some of the closest relationships that white men and women had were with their black slaves. Indeed, we would not have Clarke’s description of the lives of black families and individuals if their white masters had not written at length about them in private diaries. Slaves and masters could also be united in their faith, and Charles Jones was present at the deathbed of many of his slaves, urging them on to a glory where he hoped one day to join them. Elsewhere, Clarke describes Jones taking part in a slave funeral at night under a full moon, the only white man among the host of mourners.
Yet, Jones could still lament at one point that whites “live and die in the midst of Negroes and know comparatively little of their real character.” His lament points to the different levels on which a slave’s life was lived: a public one in view of white masters, and a private one among other slaves. It also points to the ineradicable barriers that slavery erected between two peoples. Clarke illustrates this point beautifully when he contrasts the wide, oak-lined roads that whites used to travel between plantations with the secret, narrow, winding paths through the forest that slaves used for the same (for them, forbidden) purposes.
Southern writer Eudora Welty once wrote that knowing one place well helps us to know all other places better. This principle, that the particular always reflects the universal, is certainly true of the small world of Liberty County found in Dwelling Place. The richness of human detail allowed by Clarke’s tight focus yields a bumper crop of insights into the inner workings of a slave society. Another reviewer noted that the book resembles a Russian novel, so complex is the web of relationships it portrays. The comparison is well made, and one could only add that Dwelling Place also rivals its Russian cousins in the depth of its insight into the human heart.
Robert Elder is currently writing a dissertation at Emory University on honor culture and Evangelical Christianity in the nineteenth-century American South. He writes the weblog, Clio and Calvin. He lives in Decatur, Georgia, with his wife Catherine, and is a member of Christ Church Presbyterian.
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