What She Couldn’t See
I grew up in a world where the past beckoned to me from behind a curtain of what Czeslaw Milosz calls “official lies.” The place was New Orleans, Louisiana, and the shrouded past was the antebellum South. In the official version, touted to tourists on the plantation trail where the fine houses still stand in all their neoclassical splendor, the institution of slavery is little more than a persistent blemish on the otherwise flawless complexion of an energetic, proud, and chivalrous society. Two contradictory claims – that slaves were valuable and thus seldom mistreated and that if Yankees had not made such a fuss, Southerners would gradually have freed their slaves – are still sounded in conversations about the past.
Even when I was a child, the question of whether slave owners were indulgent patriarchs or sadistic tyrants seemed moot to me. Being a slave meant you had to work hard all the time, you never got paid, and you couldn’t leave. It was much like being a horse. And the rebellious horse, as Black Beauty observed of his spirited friend Ginger, will come to a bad end.
A few years ago, while reading Christina Vella’s biography of a fascinating New Orleanian, the Baroness de Pontalba, I was struck by a description of events surrounding the slave revolt near New Orleans in 1811, the largest the United States was ever to know. Hundreds of slaves were involved, and when the rebellion was crushed by a combination of citizens and military militias, the eighteen men believed to be the instigators were quickly tried and sentenced to execution “without torture,” following which their severed heads were to be “displayed on pikes along the Mississippi river.”,
A chilling vision. “Without torture” surely meant torture was a legal option; the grisly detail of the heads brought to my mind an image of a Southern lady driving down River Road in her carriage, discreetly lowering her veil so as not to be offended by the sights. This brief glimpse into the past started a familiar uneasiness in my imagination. “This place,” I thought, “was hell for everybody, owned and owners alike.”
As a novelist I have long been fascinated by the psychic effects of inequalities of power and by the mechanics of resistance. I never tire of examining the endless permutations of hypocrisy that inevitably erode our quest for an ethical society. Absently at first, then with more direction, I began to search out diaries and letters from the period around the 1811 revolt. I was looking for something I hadn’t heard before: the voice of a woman slaveholder in America’s Deep South well before the Civil War.
My quest was blessed by the gods of research. I found several volumes of letters written by women slaveholders, as well as diaries and account books kept by planters. One compilation, entitled Plantation Life in Louisiana, comprising the diaries of Bennet H. Barrow, a cotton planter in West Feliciana Parish, caught my attention and led me ultimately to the voice of Manon Gaudet, the narrator of my novel Property. As Edwin Davis the editor of these diaries points out in his introduction, Barrow was not “an unusual or exceptional Southern agriculturist,” but rather a planter “typical of his time, his locale and his station in the plantation regime.” He kept diaries regularly, and though the entries are brief and often devoted entirely to the weather and the progress of his crop, now and then the reader has a glimpse of his character. He was obsessed, as most planters were, with the management of his slaves and wrote a treatise on the subject for the use of his neighbors. It reads like a dog-training manual, particularly in his insistence that the slave should ideally see the master as the source of all pleasure as well as of swift, impartial justice. Barrow kept a record of the punishments he meted out and listed the crimes for which he administered whippings and chainings.
One need not read long or deeply in the annals of slavery to notice how sexually charged the world of the slaveholders was, how the purchase of a slave was by definition a sexual proposition, breeding being crucial to the business of slaveholding. Barrow’s response to this was an intense dislike of any socialization between the races. He was appalled by the common practice of masters who fathered children by their slaves.
What struck me most about Bennet Barrow, what I found, oddly enough, that I liked about him, was his total lack of interest in all things religious. He alone among the diarists didn’t think God sanctioned slavery. Although his wife was religious, he didn’t criticize her for it; in fact, when she died, he wished he had her faith to help him bear the grief of losing her.
What, I wondered, might be the fate of this man’s daughter? How would a womansurvive in that world of lies if she refused the comfort of religion, if she too were a realist, determined to make her own way, as her father had, without pretending there was anything virtuous or noble in the character of the men who would inevitably have power over her?
I thought about how she might look, the house she might live in, the husband she might take, the slaves she might bring with her to her marriage. She might receive a servant as a wedding gift, perhaps a young woman of her own age.
One morning, after a very odd dream in which two women, one black, one white, blended into one another, I woke feeling agitated and moody. I had the thought, “it never ends.” That was the first time I heard the petulant, self-centered, ironic, and desperate voice of Manon Gaudet, and it became the first sentence of the novel.
Manon is the wife of a sugar planter, and is herself a slave owner. She is of mixed Creole-American parentage, a bitter, godless, highly observant, sardonic character. Though it doesn’t occur to her that there is anything wrong in owning other people, her atheism and natural distaste for hypocrisy keep her from defending the institution as the will of God. It is her steadfast resistance to sentimentality that interests me. I wouldn’t say that she is any better than her neighbors, but because she despises the world she lives in, she is closer than they are to seeing through the lies to the awful truth. What I came to recognize about Manon was that, because she is who she is, no matter how close she gets to that truth, she will never see it.