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Hauntingly Familiar: Bondage, Blood, And Property In Old Hepsy

Hauntingly Familiar: Bondage, Blood, and Property in Old Hepsy

The intertwining threads of blood, race, family, and inheritance were primary concerns during the nineteenth century. The maintenance and clarity of racial boundaries were necessary to determine who could hold property versus who could serve as property. These boundaries were frequently eroded by cases of miscegenation (or amalgamation, as it was more commonly called) that occurred between white women and black men. In many instances, the realms of the legal and medical spheres were required to sort out and delineate racial distinctions. Though doctors and judges were able to decide whether a person clearly belonged to one race or another, the historical record illustrates that the boundaries of blood, race, and family were more twisted and entangled than these decisions would lead one to believe.

An example of one of these legal cases can be seen in the article “A Question of Legitimacy,” which appeared in the May 1845 edition of The Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery. The article recounts a paternity case involving the son of a white woman, her first husband, and the determination of family likeness versus racial contamination. In the article, a woman remarries after the death of her first husband (father to her son); the dark complexion of her son’s skin raises concerns regarding both the boy’s racial composition as well as the purity of her sexual reputation. In her defense, the woman has filed a slander charge against a doctor who declared that the child is mulatto. The boy undergoes a full physical examination in order to attempt to determine whether or not he is mulatto, as charged. The doctors (nine appearing as witnesses in the court) note that the boy has “been growing gradually whiter since birth,” the varying shades of complexion on his body have changed from dark to light (Y 457). Questions raised by the doctors include: “Are there any anatomical or physiological signs by which negro blood might with certainty be detected? Do you think it possible for color to show itself in the third and fourth generation? Do you know of any mode of bleaching by which the skin might be rendered white?” (Y 458). The author points out “nature in her operations in this obscure walk seems not to be governed by very settled laws.” To support that supposition, he points out various cases of dark children born to white parents. Significantly, the author writes that he:

knows of but one solitary case in which children were born of a white woman by a black man, and in this the offspring were rather bright mulattoes, partaking in the usual degree of the characters of the two races. Such instances, we are convinced, are of rare occurrence; and we hope that the lady involved in the vexatious suit to which we referred at the beginning of this article will be able to satisfy the jury, and society, that her unlucky boy inherits his dark skin from ancestors at least as respectable as the Gipsies [ sic ] (Y 459).

The reliance on reading the body for evidence of tainted blood and family likeness highlights struggles to discern whiteness and blackness as disparate and distinctive constructions. Mixed race figures frustrate the ability to read for specific inheritable factors that were attributed to blacks and whites but constructed as distinct racial categories. The author reassures readers of the child’s racial and genetic legitimacy by linking the boy’s dark features to his white ancestry. Furthermore, the author’s opinion that cases of white women bearing black children are rare serves to quash public concern regarding the regularity of such instances. The primacy of public rumor and notoriety in the case illustrates how important public perception of one’s sexual existence was in nineteenth century life.

Though the characters of Mary Denison’s 1858 novel, Old Hepsy never appear within the confines of a courtroom; the same issues of blood, race, family, inheritance, recognition, and public knowledge that appear in the paternity case are problematized in the novel. The reading of bodies in both the text and the courtroom point to the instabilities of racial construction during the 19 th century. The novel tells the story of two generations of the Hollister family, slaveholders whose white blood mixes with the blood of slaves through multiple instances of miscegenation. The family is confronted by their dark and illicit history when Lucina, the mixed offspring of matriarch Amy Kenneth (formerly Hollister), returns to the family home not in the position of long missing daughter, but as property. Lucina’s return triggers the collapse of the carefully constructed boundaries between white and black, family and property; the repercussions of this collapse quickly sweep through the surrounding community, disrupting the long held collective narratives about family, race, and slavery.

In this article, I argue that Denison’s racially and genetically complicated figures allow readers of the novel a new way of contemplating abolitionism in anti-slavery literature. Both black and white members of the Hollister/Kenneth family share not only their humanity, but also one another’s blood- these characters resemble one another in both behavior and feature. Denison’s novel portrays not only the horror of slavery, but also the horror of enslaving a hauntingly familiar looking half-sibling or other close relative. The danger and tragedy, Denison points out, results from white slaveholders’ refusal to recognize the uncanny, transmitted by blood(y) linkages with black family members. Denison stresses that the inability to recognize likenesses between blacks and whites results in a nation that, I argue, embodies Freud’s “an unheimlich house,” a haunted and dysfunctional nation-family. Slaveholders do not recognize the familiar or the familial in slaves, doing so would destabilize constructions of race and slavery. This article discusses slavery and family in Old Hepsy by examining tropes of property and inheritance as it moves from one family member to the next. Additionally, it identifies the issues of reading and (mis)recognition of family likeness, and raises questions of performativity and race that rock the ideological foundations upon which slavery was constructed.

Sex, Offspring, and Genealogical Constructions

In the novel, it is difficult to trace the Hollister/Kenneth family’s genealogical roots. Half-siblings are connected to one another in seemingly nebulous ways; linkages are forgotten about or glossed over. These genealogical disruptions emerge from the presence of slavery, and are visible only in the links between black and white members of the family. The distinctions between white, black, and mixed-race family members emerge from the ways that whites and blacks connected by blood read the family narrative. In Old Hepsy, the white members of the family are the figures who officially count (for the whites) as family; enslaved figures connected by blood are not recognized in the official Hollister family narrative. This dismissal of black or enslaved family members creates many of the issues surrounding family and recognition in the novel.

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the novel is its depiction of white women’s lust for the bodies of black slaves. Mason Stokes claims that the purity of women and of race are part of the same concept of nineteenth century notions of the construction of southern womanhood. He writes, “Societal taboos against miscegenation placed the primary burden for maintaining racial purity not on the master who may be abusing his female slaves sexually but on the plantation mistress, whose job it was to guard her own purity so as to ensure the purity of whiteness’s future” (34-35). White women, especially those belonging to the middle and upper classes; bore the brunt of maintaining white purity. Amy Kenneth’s failure to maintain white racial purity, manifested in the body of her mixed raced daughter, tarnishes her role as the family matriarch. The suspicions of her husband and the larger community threaten the stability of her domestic space, Washington Grange. The resulting construction of family fractures not only the Kenneths, but threatens to overwhelm the community as a whole.

The multiple constructions of family do not override or replace the genealogical family unit; instead they complicate and enrich the flimsy Hollister version of the white nineteenth century slaveholding narrative of family as bound by white genealogical limits. Constructions of family that appear in the text include blacks (both freed and enslaved), slave families, and even a gardener and the flowers/children that he raises for the Hollisters. For black slave families in the text, inheritability refers to both traits (physical and behavioral) as well as the identity of slavehood. Joycliffe’s son has inherited the same large stature as his father, but the father worries that his other inheritance, slavery, limits his future abilities (187). Many of the black characters in the novel are portrayed as parents, but the presence of slavery breaches their familial connections to their children. The ability of others to read skin color for the inheritance of slavery, particularly in the case of white slaves, is undermined by the shaky ground of seeing and recognition. How much one chooses to see when reading bodies is potentially devastating to the institution of slavery. The effects of multiple conceptions of family as well as the inability or refusal of the white Hollisters/Kenneths to recognize blood family members result in a text that thoroughly disrupts American conceptions of the safe and fully realized domestic space.

Lucina’s reappearance in the Hollister/Kenneth household triggers the collapse of the slaveholding family narrative. Simultaneously, she inhabits two fraught positions, both daughter and slave, within the domestic space of their home. Lucina is rescued by Mrs. Kenneth - who recognizes the girl as her long lost daughter. She purchases her from a fancy market trader to serve as a household domestic until she is able to free her from the confines of slavery. Lucina is never fully publicly recognized as a daughter by Mrs. Kenneth, though many suspect the girl’s true identity. Not recognized as a daughter, Lucina is property, and valuable property, at that. Her education and skills, as well as her very white complexion, make her a highly desirable slave. Unable to escape her connection to the Hollister/Kenneth family, Lucina’s outcome hinges upon the very genealogical roots that threaten to profit from her sale. Lucina needs the public recognition of Mrs. Kenneth as mother in order to legitimate her claim for freedom, in order to follow the condition of her mother. However, this recognition hinges upon further upset of the Kenneth family through the acknowledgement of the Hollister family’s indiscretions and, more generally, the recognition that white southern women’s virtue was not as pure as slaveholders believed.

Lucina is the product of the union between her mother (Amy Kenneth, nee Hollister) and her mother’s half-brother, Fred Keene - himself a slave, the child of Amy’s father (General Hollister) and one of the General’s enslaved mistresses. Family ties (and the construction of family itself) are troubled throughout the novel; affairs between black and white members of the same family problematize boundaries of blood and race. Eva Saks claims that the troubling of family through “the flux in blood and the problem of its representation…was reflected in the association of miscegenation and incest” (53). Denison constructs slavery as the root cause of these family anxieties. In the novel, Marshall Randolph, a reformed slaveholder, states that slaveholding is the thing that “make[s] one great brothel of the South.” Slavery “corrupts the daughter as well as the son, - the mistress as well as the master - though the criminals are supposed to be comparatively fewer in the former cases” (419). Affairs between white women and black men during the nineteenth century were not historically rare; however, they are rarely seen within the pages of the sentimental novel. In White Women, Black Men, Martha Hodes traces several cases of miscegenation in the nineteenth century. She points out that instances of intercourse between white women and slaves were fairly common, however, the products (racially mixed offspring) of these affairs created multiple problems materializing in the forms of ancestry, race, slavery, and freedom. She writes, “As a free child of partial African ancestry, that child’s existence would erode categories of slavery and freedom based upon race. All together, it was the problem of the child that brought the illicit liaison into the public realm beyond the confines of gossip and scandal” (emphasis mine) (48). Many of the cases that Hodes documents are regarded as doomed romances. However, it is clear in Old Hepsy that Denison does not think of Amy Kenneth and Keene’s liaison as resembling that of two star crossed lovers. Instead, Amy Kenneth’s actions are discussed as those of abuse kindled by the corruption of power, akin to abolitionist discussions of white men and female slaves. During a discussion of this history to Hollister, Lucina’s father Keene says, “Hollister, the slave-owners, I mean among the men, are pretty bad scoundrels, often, but the slave-owner’s daughter, and the slave-holder’s wife, sometimes stoop to folly as well!” (244). In this evasive revelation, the affair that occurred between Keene and Mrs. Kenneth does not seem to have been grounded in mutual romance, but in Mrs. Kenneth’s desire (much like Colonel Hollister’s desire for Keene & Hollister’s mothers) for Keene’s enslaved, sexualized body. Though Hollister is unaware of their affair, some in the text (such as Hepsy) know this secret history while others are able to recognize, to read Lucina’s body for clues of her genesis. Lucina’s appearance (both in feature and in action) haunts the Kenneth household by embodying the secrets of the Hollisters’ past. The recognition of this history, of her figure, disrupts the Kenneth household and its precariously white family narrative.

The variety of family narratives in Old Hepsy reveals competing members and contesting versions of the concept of family. The Hollister/Kenneth family narrative relies upon the disavowal of ties to black and enslaved members. Amy Kenneth (nee Hollister) has two half-siblings, Keene (also the father of Lucina) and Hollister. Her father’s (Colonel Hollister) liaisons with two mixed women resulted in her half brothers, also held as slaves on the Hollister estate. Amy’s marriage with Everard Kenneth produced a daughter, Amy Kenneth. Lucina (like Hollister and Keene) is not considered to be a family member, though Mrs. Kenneth’s biological connection to the girl results in her rescuing Lucina from a worse fate in the fancy trade market. Keene and Hollister, perhaps due to the exclusion of the Hollister family, delineate a connection to their black family members. Keene is attributed as having two versions of family: the first, his connection to his daughter Lucina, is predicated not only by his role as her father (a role that she is unaware of) but by their connection to one another as slaves (249), the second set of Keene’s type of kin is his connection to other blacks. In a discussion about Keene, Marshall says to Henry, “There is one noble trait about these white slaves, or men with a drop of black blood infused into the gallons of white; they seldom disown their kindred, seldom pretend to be superior to them in any way” (178). Keene’s new family – not the blood-linked Hollister kin – are his black brothers and sisters, linked to him through the color of their skin. Slave families in the text, such as Joycliffe’s (a Kenneth slave), are always under threat of white interference. Or, like Hepsy, slaves mourn the lost members of their families, sold by spiteful or greedy owners. Even the Kenneth family gardener, a slave who never had his own children, creates a family from the flowers he nurtures. Significantly, these flowers are sacrificed by the gardener for the Hollisters. They demonstrate another way in which the children of slaves are taken from their parents in order to meet the demands of their white owners. Family for blacks and whites in the novel is equally important, but differs in concept. Ultimately, the question of family is one of interpretation- particularly for white slaveholders. Abolitionist Henry learns from Marshall Randolph that Hollister, Keene, and Mrs. Kenneth are siblings. At his shocked look, Marshall asks if he is horrified by the relationship. Henry responds that it is not the relationship, but “the crime! The crime!” that bothers him (177). The familial relationship (between blacks and whites) is one that Henry naturally associates as a product of wrongdoing. Marshall himself comes to these same conclusions when confronted with the shock of familial recognition.

In a heated exchange with Quaker abolitionist Henry Van Broek about Northern perceptions of abolitionism, Marshall declares that he finds the idea of amalgamation revolting. Henry retorts that the North most thoroughly carries these principles into practice, as Southern masters are attempting to change the Ethiopians’ skin in the slave quarters. Marshall acquiesces, noting that amalgamation is a “frightful feature of our domestic institution” (174). Marshall Randolph’s own domestic situation on the Randolph estate includes miscegenation. Marshall discovers his own genealogical ties to slavery. Upon arriving home after a seven-year absence, he is confronted by a white slave baby, cradled in the arms of one of his father’s mistresses. Then, his sister urges him to see the newest addition to the Randolph family - his mother’s youngest child. His sister declares that the child looks “like our Roxy’s little boy,” the white slave baby who first catches his attention. At this statement, Marshall’s mother sank helplessly in her chair; his sister’s flushed face betrays her moment of realization of the family connection (163). In the novel, ways of seeing undermine the artificial distance between white and black family members. Though black blood taints slaves, it is the readability (as well as misreading) of white family blood that shatters the constructed distance, which betrays their connection to white genealogy.

Blood and Inheritance

Blood is a key biological and social construct in nineteenth century slavery narratives. Eva Saks states, “While this historical origin explained the social status of blacks, it absolutely challenged the legal and ‘scientific’ myth that the boundary between the races was natural, ahistorical, and biological. Blood was merely law’s representation, one that tried to render natural and scientific that which was instead legal and metaphorical” (53). Though both black and white family members share blood in the novel, it is one’s black blood that results in enslavement. Hollister appears to be very similar in skin color to Mr. Kenneth, but is in fact whiter. He is “fairer than that of the man who owned him,” however; the one sixteenth of the “unhappy blood marking an outcast race” ran in his veins (48-49). Despite the ability to read Hollister’s body as white, it is his black blood that taints and overrules his white blood, therefore legitimizing his position as a slave within the family.

Denison further complicates ideas about blood by using it as a trope which functions in opposition to white supremacy. Despite Marshall’s genealogical tie to his father, his abolitionist views physically break the connection between the two men. In a scene where he defends the aged body of his father’s slave, the blow directed towards the man’s back is received in the exchange by Marshall’s back. Marshall realizes, in the pain of the blow, that “their skin bruises as easily” as his own, that his “very manhood [has] been struck!” (154). The raising of his blood, beneath his white skin, by one of his own blood, has enlightened Marshall Randolph to the indignities of slavery. The trope that whites differed from blacks based upon blood is usurped by the inherent similarity of blood in this scene in the text.

As well as standing as a link between whites, blood is representative of black vengeance. In a scene in which Keene reveals the truth regarding the identity of Hollister’s mother, blood becomes a war cry, a promise of punishment for the injustices done onto one’s own blood, punishments that were a result of one’s slave blood. Hollister grows hysterical when he discovers that his mother is the crazed figure who haunts the Hatch woods. He calls for revenge - “Blood! Blood! We can only be regenerated by blood!” (242). The meaning of Hollister’s cry is unclear, as it has several possible meanings. In regard to slavery - slaves are “regenerated in blood” - the blood of their mothers. This cry could also be interpreted as Hollister’s desire to draw blood in vengeance - the honor of his abused mother (and himself, as her enslaved son) can only come from the blood of those who have caused their misery. I believe that both meanings can be read simultaneously, without conflicting, in this moment. Because blood in Old Hepsy is charged with considerable importance, the connection between characters’ orchestrated genealogy and to slavery is ultimately saturated with violence. Hollister is the first (and presumably last) slave that Kenneth ever struck. He “lashed the creeping flesh of Hollister till the fine, smooth skin was cut in fifty places, and the blood streamed from as many wounds” (425). In his beating of Hollister, we see Kenneth’s frustration stemming from his inaccessibility to the Hollister blood in every sense. Family members are connected by blood, and they are also connected by inheritance. Though slaveholders were able to deny the legitimacy of blacks within the genealogical family, genetic traits reveal the familiar, even when linkages between people are closely guarded secrets. The bodies of individuals in the text are read in terms of both family and race.

Inheritance in Old Hepsy has multiple characteristics. Inheritance, in the broadest sense, refers to receiving “property” from one’s predecessors. This property can come in the form of physical goods that would be present in a will (land, money, houses, etc). This property can also come in the form of behavioral traits, such as temperament. Inheritable property also comes in the form of physical traits, such as family members sharing the same eye color or other physical features. Blood determines one’s eligibility to receive inheritance. One may also be able to recognize the traits that are inherited - whether that reveals itself through appearance and/or behavior. In the novel, the physical and behavioral traits passed from white family members to other whites are negative in nature. Amy Kenneth’s inheritance of physical and behavioral traits from her parents directly affects her attitude towards enslaved bodies. Her fondness of the management of the family slaves, especially Hollister, is identical to that of her father. In a moment of discussing her anger with Hollister, “her father’s hot temper flash[ed] from her eyes.” Her face also carries “the same vivacity and resolution - her eyes the same light, depth and fire” as Mr. Kenneth (28). The pattern of inheritance among white slave holders and one’s behavioral attributes is presented as an explanation for Amy Kenneth’s sad fate. Denison suggests that Amy Hollister is the inheritor of her father’s (Colonel Hollister) well-known lust for enslaved bodies. She writes, “The sins of the father shall be visited upon the children. Reason as we may upon this declaration, we cannot fail to see that it is proved daily and hourly - whether directly, as a judgment from heaven, or as a certain result, consequent upon the passions and temperament of one person being transmitted to another” (453). This threat of behavioral inheritance in slaveholding families can be extended from the fictional Hollister/Kenneth household to all slaveholding families.

On the other hand, the lack of certain inheritable traits between white family members is also presented as a problem. Mr. Kenneth’s links to his Quaker upbringing are absent. This absence is presented as an aspect that disassociates him from his genealogical roots. His sister, Mabel van Broek tells her son Harry, “He never seemed like one of us, [a Quaker] although he was a birthright Friend” (65). However, Harry is told that he “looks like his father” in his passion for abolitionism (67). For white slaveholding families, inheritable traits are constructed as detrimental; in the case of abolitionist whites, inheritable traits are advantageous to family members.

Conversely, there are moments in which white slaveholders defy their genealogical inheritance, always for the better. In a conversation between Mr. Kenneth and General Randolph, discussing Marshall Randolph’s return home, there is a clear assumption that Marshall is the inheritor of his father’s mannerisms. Mr. Kenneth inquires of Marshall’s looks, his father responds that he “looks like a Randolph clear through from his head to his heels.” Not only does Marshall look like his father, it is also assumed that he will behave like his father. The General tells Kenneth that he expects his son will “be picking round among my handsome quadroon wenches,” a behavior that he is known to indulge in quite frequently (124). Marshall is able to overcome his genetic limitations by disinheriting his connection to slavery through a conversion to abolitionism, representing the power to change how a Randolph might behave. As well as whites, black and enslaved figures in the text also inherit physical and behavioral traits from family. These traits can be dangerous to individuals, but are determined by recognition, the ability for others to read bodies and discern resemblances.

Upon first seeing Lucina, Mr. Kenneth perceives a host of Hollister family physical characteristics that he is unable to link to her genetic predecessors. He says to Lucina, “madam has been treating herself to a rare piece of flesh and blood since I’ve been away. Who does the girl make me think of?” (21). As Mrs. Kenneth’s illegitimate daughter, Lucina is a “rare piece of flesh and blood.” Kenneth recognizes her - she “makes [him] think of” his own flesh and blood. In this potentially unsettling moment of resemblance, Kenneth is almost able to fully see Lucina through recognizing her familial birthmark. Gradually, more and more connections are established between Lucina, her mother, and her half-sister Amy. Mr. Kenneth suggests that the girl “is almost as white as Amy. Quite her size, too, and not bad-featured. People will take them for twins - what will you do then?” (34). Mr. Kenneth is suspicious about the girl’s origins; his daughter Amy grows apprehensive about Lucina’s appearance as well. Grappling with her status as a slave, Lucina compares her skin color to Amy’s, which is just slightly lighter. Amy tells her, “To be sure you’re very light, but then you must remember that the slightest tinge of African blood, on your mother’s side, dooms you to bondage” (41). Skin color, race, and genealogy are bound together in this moment. Though both share the same white mother, and are legally free, their mother does not publicly recognize Lucina’s status as her daughter, though others are able to recognize the genetic link in her physical appearance.

In order for Lucina to claim whiteness as her property, she requires the testimony (in conjunction with visible recognition) of Mrs. Kenneth as her mother. Cheryl I. Harris establishes the value of whiteness and white identity as a legally recognized property, “sources of privilege and protection: their absence meant being the object of property” (279). In Lucina’s status as a domestic slave in her mother’s household, she is unable to access her white property rights if, as Harris illustrates, “by ‘property’ one means all of a person’s legal rights” (280). Though Lucina has inherited many traits from her mother, her whiteness (and therefore, her freedom) remains unavailable for her usage if her mother will not publicly affirm their genetic relationship. It is the presence of black blood that keeps Lucina herself from claims to a white identity. The presence of one drop, as Harris states, consigns her to being a contaminated black body. Paradoxically black and legally free, Lucina occupies a precarious position within the realms of slavery. Unlike the genetic connection to her mother and half-sister, freedom from bondage is a trait that cannot be read on Lucina’s body. The presence of black blood consigns her to slave status.

Recognition and Reading the Body

Sight and recognition of inheritable characteristics from white slaveholders to black and white slaves reveal the commonalities between races that are so frequently denied by slaveholders. The moments in which recognition takes place breach the constructed distance between black and white bodies. Similar to Marshall Randolph’s moment of seeing his youngest sibling’s resemblance to his father’s slave’s baby, Hagar the nurse tells Mabel a story about recognition and the reading of slave bodies. She tells her the story of Mrs. French, a white woman who realizes her husband is father to their son as well as to a black son. In comparing the boys’ heights, she fainted. Hagar says, “She couldn’t help seeing, you know” (398). Looking, really seeing a body, also reveals family connections between white slaves. Hepsy tells Hollister that if he wants to know what Keene’s secret is - he should look at Lucina, and then go look at Fred Keene (205). The features shared by Lucina and Fred reveal their family connection.

Freud’s discussion of the uncanny in his essay, “The Uncanny,” is applicable as a way to explain the pervasive issue of recognition and repetition of history in the text of Old Hepsy. He writes, “and finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing - the repetition of the same features or character traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations,” (234). The recurrence of inheritable traits, treatment of family members by one another, and the passing on of names (and behaviors) from one person to the next are some of the many ways the uncanny occurs within the novel. Applying Freud’s argument of the uncanny in the problematization of recognition in this text reveals why some characters are unable to see genetic characteristics shared by black and white family members. Freud writes, “for this uncanny is nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only in the process of repression,” (241). White slaveholders have repressed the familiar in black bodies, to recognize the familiar is to feel frightened by the shared birthmarks of the familial, therefore acknowledging the unstable construction of slavery and race.

While family resemblances are a matter of recognition, slavery and skin color is also a problem of sight. In the novel, white characters are frequently unable to clearly read white bodies and determine whether or not they are held in slavery. Maggie declares her interest in Hollister’s handsomeness, which also falls under Harry’s admiring gaze. Harry is taken aback by the knowledge that Hollister is a slave, while Maggie declares that he is “just the man I should like to conquer” (141). Joycliffe’s black body is read in juxtaposition to Hollister’s in the same scene - Harry exclaims that the man is a “noble looking black, a real African king” (141). While white slavery is shocking, the enslavement of black bodies, (versus whiter bodies), is morally wrong - but not cause for shock (or a source of Maggie’s desire).

Besides revealing the history and connections between two people, looking and seeing also has a sexual connotation. In a conversation with Hepsy, Hollister discloses that his physical punishment of being struck in the face by Amy was a result of his looking at her. Hepsy grows angry, and asks Hollister what business he had looking at her. “Looking” in this case, is sexual. Hepsy tells Hollister, “nigger get flogging in old mars’ Hollister place, ef dey look in white woman’s eye. White woman cry ef nigger look at she - tell old mars’ - he call nigger - ‘Harry! Wha’ you dar look at yo’ missus fo’?” (204). Hollister’s “looking” at Amy is charged with sexual overtones, yet also reveals his frustration in regarding her as his owner. At the same time, the ability to read enslaved bodies (especially for white women) has strong sexual overtones. Throughout the novel, black bodies are sexualized, specifically enslaved blacks who tread the precarious line between whiteness and blackness . The link between desire and family through incest and miscegenation is a result of attempts to control another’s body.

Hollister and Lucina are the figures that are most frequently sexualized by white slaveholders. Amy Kenneth’s repulsion of Hollister is intertwined with her attraction to him. As the attraction between the two grows over time, Amy must continuously reassert his role as a slave, rather than as a suitor. Denison writes, “Hollister had never seemed like a slave till he began to show his preference too warmly” (277). Hollister’s desire marks him as a slave, the desire of white female slaveholders to control these men is displayed by Amy Kenneth and her cousin Maggie - both who stand to inherit slaves from their predecessors. Maggie discusses the fun she has while flirting with her male slaves. She states, “And when there are no beaus, it’s somewhat amusing to pretend to show them a little extra notice, too. I think it’s prime fun, because they do often actually like one; and they are slaves, indeed” (89). Maggie’s attraction to these slaves stems from their attention to her as a mistress - it is unclear whether or not these men actually desire Maggie, but their status as slaves forces them to heed her every beck and call. She has mistaken the bonds of slavery with sexual desire or attention. In “Miscegenation in Old Hepsy,” Vauthier claims that one of the ways in which the text explodes the family metaphor is through the disruption of white patriarchal power. The male slave’s role was to act as a child in relation to the white parental figures, “to recognize the male slave as a possible adult was of course much more subversive” (344). Maggie and Amy’s reading of male black bodies as sexually charged figures clashes with their positions as future plantation mistresses, the paradigm of virtuous Southern womanhood. As well as the control of and desire for male white slaves, Lucina’s status as a slave, combined with her ability to successfully perform whiteness, causes her to also receive negative attention.

Lucina, believing that she will soon officially be a part of the van Broek family, grandly portrays herself as a white daughter. A new family history is created in this upcoming adoption. Mabel tells Lucina that “as the daughter of a Governor’s widow, thee must dress befittingly” (285). Preparing for the party, Lucina believes that she is reproducing the performance of the Van Broek’s white family. She is decked out in Mabel’s family jewels, causing uproar when the two arrive at the party. Lucina’s performance gets her into trouble - it roils Kenneth’s temper while also attracting Dole Baker as her potential purchaser. In fact, her presence and appearance at the party confirms Kenneth’s suspicions regarding who her mother is. (315). Ariella Gross details the successful employment of performances of white femininity within the space of the court room. She writes, “For a woman, performing whiteness meant acting out purity and moral virtue. Performing pure white womanhood was the feminine equivalent of male acts of citizenship through the exercise of civic duties” (157). A successful deployment of white womanhood would have been advantageous for Lucina in the courtroom; however, this performance is dependent upon who is reading her body and in what context. Though she fulfills Mabel’s expectations of how a white daughter should appear, at the same time, this white femininity only serves to stoke Dole Baker’s interest as a buyer. Kenneth is able to identify Lucina’s mother through the girl’s appearance, and this reconcilability only further strengthens his desire to be rid of the girl. These successful performances can be beneficial to individuals, but outside of the legal realm, whitened slaves inhabit a precarious space. Lucina’s convincing performance of whiteness increases her potential value to slaveholders. She and other “white slaves” in the novel reveal that whiteness can be assumed and performed, rather than inherited. Lucina and Hollister’s close proximity to whiteness and their status as slaves trigger desire for those who wish to make their whiteness an ownable property.

Desire and Control

Family ties between blacks and whites are continuously intertwined with desire, a desire that blacks understand and recognize in a way that whites do not. Misunderstanding Keene’s interest in Lucina (his daughter), the gardener assumes that this interest is sexual in nature, but is upset when Keene tells him he is mistaken. The gardener believes that Keene’s response is for another reason - that Lucina isn’t white enough. He says, “P’raps nobody good enough for you but some white missus. White ladies very kind to white niggers…” (79). Keene’s concern for Lucina primarily emerges from his knowledge and experience regarding the treatment of black family by white owners. His worry that that they will “prostitute her” is caught up in black/white sexual familial relations. The ties between miscegenation and incest in the novel appear between Keene and Mrs. Kenneth and threaten to reappear between Hollister and Amy Kenneth. These relationships can be considered a form of inherited status, passing from one slaveholding generation to the next. Though Mr. Kenneth is not linked by blood to the Hollisters, his attempts to assert control over bodies manifests in sexual ways, while he also simultaneously attempts to maintain distance and difference between himself and black bodies.

The links between slavery, control, chattel, and sexuality reveal a desire to maintain white male supremacy in all realms of life. White patriarchal desire for power and control in the family manifests in disparate ways, particularly when that desire cannot be satisfied within the household. Mr. Kenneth’s relationship with his horse, Spitfire, illustrates his frustration to assert authority in his treatment of his slaves as well as his efforts at controlling his wife. Similarly, Robert S. Levine links General Glendinning of Melville’s Pierre to the bodies of his horse and his slaves. He writes, “the narrator ironically romanticizes the violence of slave ownership as a love altogether similar to the love that the General has for his horses. Slaves and horses are closely linked on the General’s estate, and there are half-joking suggestions for the outset of the novel that slaves, horses, and even Glendinnings share parallel (and perhaps intersecting) genealogies” (154). The connection between chattel and family in Old Hepsy has distinct sexual overtones, but ultimately Kenneth’s attraction to Spitfire stems from the horse’s devotion and for his ability to control the animal in a way that no one else can. At a dinner party, Kenneth demonstrates his usage of magnetism that he claims has tamed both Spitfire and his slaves. As a reward for being tamed by his master, Kenneth has outfitted his horses’ stable like “a lady’s boudoir,” lined with beautiful fabrics and equipped with the latest machinery. While I think Spitfire represents the good slave that Kenneth felt he could never have, Spitfire is also the controllable sexual body that stands in for Mrs. Kenneth’s uncontrollability. Not only are others unable to mount Spitfire, the horse is described like a beautiful woman, with “his beautiful head with its flowing mane” (120). Maggie’s disastrous encounter with Spitfire is referred to as an “invasion of his rights” (371). Spitfire, known in the community as a dangerous animal that can only be controlled by Kenneth, confirms the man’s place as white master. The horse is a good investment, loyal and loving to its owner. However, Mrs. Kenneth is a poor purchase for a wife. She was a broken piece of furniture, badly put together and sold as new to the buyer. He emphasizes his role as purchaser, exclaiming “for he gave in return heart, body and soul - a great price, gentlemen, for a worthless bargain!” (418). As a “bad buy,” Amy Hollister is likened to Kenneth’s unruly slaves as well as his horses - she is the Spitfire that could not be tamed, who had more than one rider. While lying on death’s door, Kenneth is abandoned by his wife. In her place, Spitfire attempts to break into the home, as if to rescue the man. It was debated upon whether the horse should be allowed in his chambers, but “the proposition seemed so monstrous that it was overruled” (449). Despite the monstrous proposition, the parallel between slave and horse is recognized as sexual by some, but also echoed by others in the novel.

As well as Everard Kenneth, other male slaveholders liken the bodies of their slaves to those of horses. Dole Baker’s overwhelming desire for Lucina is matched in his desire to mate her with one of his “white fellows.” Dole connects this mating with that of his horses, and points out the intelligence of Kenneth’s Spitfire as an example of smart chattel - chattel who can be be controlled by their master, particularly in terms of their sexuality. Kenneth refers to Lucina as a “horse of another entirely” when the men are discussing the merits of their fancy slaves (127). Though the fancy market trade in very light colored slaves was smaller than the general slave trade, many were publicly aware of this form of slave trading. Slaves in this market were in demand for their potential to serve as concubines. Walter Johnson states that the fancy market trade moved from the visible preferences to biological ancestry. He claims “buyers were seeing color, but they were looking for lineage” (7). Degrees of whiteness and black changed the values of the slaves at stake in the sales, only the whitest, most beautiful and talented women were traded in the fancy marketplace. Lucina, readers discover, would hold a high value in the market. In describing Lucina’s various talents (which only increase her value) the men jokingly ask Kenneth if he is talking about his daughter. Though he is talking about a woman who could potentially be his step-daughter, Kenneth takes offense at the conversations’ connection to daughter Amy. In these examples, the metonymic slide from horse to slave to sex to family brings the primary issue of white patriarchal control in sharp focus. Though Mr. Kenneth’s ability to control Spitfire is clear, it is poor compensation for his inability to discipline the bodies of his slaves and his wife. Though Kenneth’s role as white male patriarch is blemished by his wife’s sexual past, there were recourses available to him through the legal system.

Legality and Physical Distance

Kenneth chooses not to “seek the justice of the law” in his situation because his “rigid regard for truth would not let him live in accordance with the prescribed rules of the marital relations” (316). His pride would not allow him to publicly reveal his family’s secrets, and he worries that his reputation as a drunk and a gambler may causes others to pity his wife. Had he not feared debasement in the public space of the courtroom, there are legal options that Everard Kenneth could have taken. Martha Hodes describes several legal cases in which white husbands were granted divorce “on the grounds that their wives had consorted with black men before marriage” (74). However, not all cases resulted in a divorce decision. How much the husband knew about his wife before marrying her could determine the outcome of a case. One man was denied divorce by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on the grounds that he knew her to be lewd before they were married. Public knowledge of behavior in one’s community had much influence in the courtroom; if Everard had filed for divorce, he may not have been successful, given the rumor that was pervasive in the neighborhood about the Washington Grange household. As well, had Mr. Kenneth brought Amy Kenneth into the courtroom, he would most likely have been forced to do what he refuses to do throughout the novel: recognize Lucina as his wife’s daughter. In many divorce cases, Hodes states that white husbands had to take responsibility for the support of bastard children (91). In these cases, problems with the patriarch’s will and inheritance haunt the family for multiple generations. These types of legal outcomes would force Everard Kenneth to do what he has refused to do throughout the novel, that is, to recognize his close proximity to black bodies. In the March 1861 case Sullivan v.Hugly, the presence of hearsay regarding a child’s racial composition threatens to disrupt the Hugly family long after the child in question (and his parents) have died. Ultimately, the decisive factor about Amos Hugly’s race was not the plethora of expert testimony from a physician, nor the rumor that flooded the Hugly’s community. Judge Cabaniss cites the father’s awareness of the rumor regarding his paternity and “although his attention was called directly to the fact; he rejected the idea indignantly.” Cabaniss states, “the father has an opportunity to judging of the legitimacy of the birth of his child that others are not supposed to have” (15). In this case, family members are able to recognize one another in a way that others cannot. Mr. Kenneth’s inability to see Lucina (or Hollister, or Keene) becomes detrimental to his attempt to shore up white patriarchy in his household. The institution of slavery denies the inherent closeness that bodies have to one another, causing relationships to be precariously situated upon a white fantasy.

Kenneth’s claim to have physical distance from his slaves through his unwillingness to perpetrate physical harm or have sexual contact with them is disrupted by Denison’s elucidation of his body and its proximity to blackness. Denison connects Mr. Kenneth to the bodies of his slaves, even if he himself will not do so. In one of the most carefully constructed scenes in the novel, Kenneth is entertaining guests at his dinner table, explaining to them that he “never whipped a slave in his life.” Interwoven with his speech is a terrible vision taking place on a Kenneth plantation in Kentucky. Twenty four slaves are burnt at the stake as punishment for an attempted revolution. Denison haunts the reader in this moment - explaining that the female slaves being punished feel the pulses of “unborn babes, leaping with the horror or nature outraged at prospect of such a fate” (103-104). The author makes it clear that Kenneth, no matter his claims of leniency, is connected, as a condition of inheritance or through family bonds, to the most egregious of crimes committed in the name of slavery.

In addition to Kenneth’s connection to the bodies of his slaves through his position as a slaveholder and through his marriage to Mrs. Kenneth, Denison further sketches his physical body’s likeness to blacks through blackening his figure. In Hepsy’s dream, she prophetically sees Mr. Kenneth’s transition into blackness. His blood spouts out from his body and envelopes him. The body of her son, Jack, is bedecked in white clothing and has white wings, and the light that shines from his face concurrently makes Kenneth “black in de face.” Gradually, Jack “grow more an’more white, an’ he keep growing whiter an’ whiter, till by’n by old Kenneth be black as iron kittle” (200). In Jack’s growing whiter, Kenneth grows blacker and blacker; paradoxically, the blackness that tarnishes Kenneth is associated with the very whiteness of slave holding – Kenneth is unable to escape from being marked by the metaphorical blackness of his hatred. Furthermore, Kenneth’s fate is sealed by the physical confrontation of a black body. Ultimately, he is cursed with the body of Hepsy’s son. She moves her son’s coffin into the yard (a space that is highly visible from the public roadway). Hepsy believes that Kenneth’s riding through the coffin’s shadow has caused his downfall, but perhaps the slaveholder’s gaze upon the devastated body of the slave is enough to push him over the edge as he stands on the brink of madness (330). The disruptive and haunting figure of the black body unsettles white supremacy in the novel through not only serving as a reminder of close proximity, but also as a memory of a history that some try to forget. The inheritances of slavery are ugly ghosts of past sins that threaten to repeat themselves in new generations of the white slaveholding family.

Uncanny Ghosts and Repetition

The appearance of Lucina within the Kenneth household is the first of many black bodies that illustrate the threat of history’s shadow within the domestic sphere. Lucina’s presence (her physical resemblance to her genetic predecessors) and appearance (her mysterious arrival in the Kenneth home) cause Amy to doubt her family’s purity. She is worried that “my father may be hers” (21). Her mother reassures her, telling her that her father is true to his wife and child. Lucina, an uncanny presence who haunts the Washington Grange household, raises questions about the family’s ability to successfully

exclude blackness from their lineage, as well as the threat that this blackness will forcefully reassert itself within the family. Amy’s inheritance from her mother threatens to repeat family history - her attraction to Hollister bears a ghostly likeness to that of her mother’s relationship with Keene. The repetition of incest through miscegenation is caused by white family members’ inability to include blacks in the family tree. Vauthier believes that the theme [of incest] is kept muted, perhaps out of literary discretion, perhaps out of a desire to be ‘realistic’: the novel, in fact, dramatizes Southern ignorance of interracial incest while playing on the fascinated horror of incest in the American readers” (344-345). While the term incest is not used in the novel, I disagree with Vauthier’s assessment: if anything, the readers (and the characters in the novel) come to realize that the incestuous relationships are the source of the problems in the narrative. By not recognizing the full Hollister/Kenneth family tree, Amy threatens to repeat the mistakes of her mother.

The resurrection of this family history is most clearly visible in the performance of a tableau planned for Amy’s birthday party. The portrait that Amy and Hollister reproduce is the scene of her great-grandmother’s favorite servant attending to the woman’s seated figure. Amy’s first wish is for her mother to play the role of her great-grandmother and for Keene to play the role of the servant - however, her mother refuses give her consent. After deliberation, Amy decides to appear in the role with Hollister (277). In this scene, the slide from great-grandmother to Mrs. Kenneth to Amy demonstrates an uncanny resemblance of the past to the present. The closer Amy comes to fulfilling this historical debt, the more unstable and disturbed the household and its family members become. The ability of black bodies to haunt and disturb reveals the power they hold over whites. The very space of the Washington Grange household is suspect by the end of the novel. Washington Grange has become what Freud calls “an unheimlich house,’ a ‘haunted house’” - the Hollister/Kenneth home can no longer fend off the spirits of black bodies that awaken the memories of past acts through present and eventual generations. Maggie expresses her fears to Mabel when she tells her she believes the house is haunted. She states that she knows of superstitions from her old nursemaid, one of the slaves who “impregnate the whole white population” with these ideas (364). In the novel, blacks are able to impregnate whites (a role reversal) with fear of the unknown and uncontrollable. The black family Hollister history is ever present in the bodies of their slaves, a history that the white Hollisters/Kenneths struggle to forget. Hollister’s mother is described by Keene as a ghost - she is a figure who has the ability to “haunt” the white woman (Amy and Maggie) until their dying days (368). Old Hepsy is another black figure who has the ability to disrupt and disturb whites, particularly white women who threaten to repeat mistakes from the past. Through the repetition of past acts, future generations of the Hollister/Kenneth family seemed doomed to inherit the fates of their predecessors. The powerful figures of black bodies serve as reminders of a past that white family members attempt to keep secret. Crazed with the vindictive cry of blood, Hollister reveals to Amy the true family history (with all of its black-white connections) and declares his love for her. The linkages between family, desire, and control and the menace of history’s long shadow are severed when he poisons himself and Amy shortly after this revelation. Though family members remain at the end of the novel, the future of the Hollister dynasty is lost at Amy’s death.

A House Divided: the End of the (Family) Line

There is no concern about inheritance and genealogy at the end of the novel. Readers learn that Lucina has escaped north with her father, living together as “father and child” (458). Perpetually a child, Lucina will never be a mother. As well, from the Kenneth family proper (Everard, Amy, and Amy), only Mrs. Kenneth remains. Suffering from the trauma of the loss of her husband and daughter, she is reduced to a semi-catatonic and child-like state. The family is unable to progress in the form of heirs, and given Mrs. Kenneth’s condition, can be said to have moved backwards in time, the haunting ghosts of its history having finally caught up with the present. Despite this arrest in the family, a review of the novel appearing in the April 8, 1858 edition of the National Era states, “the story ends with the triumph of right, the white slave freed, and the spirit of oppression humbled as well as baffled” (54). Though my reading does not support this notion of triumph, I concur that the novel fits within the tradition of anti-slavery novels.

Forced to confront the genealogical network in totality, the institution of slavery collapses under the weight of the very rhetoric used for the justification of legal bondage. The reviewer hopes that even though truths are “clad in the guise of fiction,” they exert a power over a “system so full of outrage” (54). Freud asserts the power of fiction in its ability to represent issues and elements from reality in ways that would otherwise be inaccessible. He writes, “the storyteller has a peculiarly directive power over us; by means of the moods he can put us into, he is able to guide the current of our emotions, to dam it up in one direction and make it flow in another, and he often obtains a great variety of effects from the same material.” (375). By revealing the flaws of an oppressive system of human bondage through her fiction, Mary Denison contributed to the erosion of institutionalized white supremacy by forcing kith and kin to confront and acknowledge the human bonds of one another.

Author’s Bio:

Eir-Anne Edgar is a PhD. candidate in English at the University of Kentucky. Focusing on the intersections of class, race, and gender, her dissertation, “Come Together: Desire, Literature, and Law of the Sexual Revolution,” argues that, during the Sexual Revolution, literary narratives resist and respond to legal discourses of desire that constrained the sexual subject. She has published articles on a range of topics, including gender and cultural studies, twentieth century American literature, and pedagogy.

 

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