Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



This dissertation integrates rhetorical, historical, and spatial analysis in an effort to expand our understanding of the cultural work performed by antebellum narratives that take slavery in the United States as their subject matter. Specifically, it focuses on the complicated relationship between place and human praxis as revealed in five texts: The Confessions of Nat Turner, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Martin R. Delany’s Blake, Frederick Douglass’s “The Heroic Slave,” and Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. In my attention to literary geographies, I trace spatial patterns in which considerations of organized resistance and slave rebellion are repeatedly placed in “wild-spaces” such as the Great Dismal Swamp, the Red River region of Louisiana, and the open ocean. Exploring their strict alignment with considerations of violence, I argue that these wild-spaces do not function as passive settings, supporting and paralleling narrative events or themes. Instead they can be seen to drive narrative action as they carry with them powerful cultural associations that translate into plot momentum. My methodological approach employs two general steps. First I document how antislavery writers developed a historically resonant narrative landscape to defuse criticism and buttress their rhetorical indictments of slavery. Second, I investigate how these writers negotiated the complicated demands of such landscapes in order to supplement moral interpretations with creative imaginings of how alternative forms of slave resistance might play out. By isolating the ties between literary landscapes and the narratives’ imaginings of slave resistance, we are able to see the intensely pragmatic, real world problem-solving in which these writers were engaged. Such a methodology highlights the formative function of place in literary output, while also providing insight into obstacles to real-world reform. I conclude that the narratives I examine served as a forum for cultural experimentation as their writers attempted to work through social and political problems that had no easy or ready solutions. Considerations of place are shown to be essential to antislavery writers’ attempts to see through the shadow of slavery to its end, and, in doing so, point the way forward.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Edward White