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Thackeray & American Slavery

In response to:

The Scholar Who Shaped History from the March 20, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

The sympathetic picture entitled Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia painted by Eyre Crowe that accompanied the article by Drew Gilpin Faust [“The Scholar Who Shaped History,” NYR, March 20] was executed in 1861 while Crowe was in America serving as amanuensis to William Makepeace Thackeray. The two English travelers were headed south by rail and were surprised to hear the first copies in book form of Uncle Tom’s Cabin being hawked on the train (it had earlier appeared in installments).

Thackeray refused either to buy or to read the book, having been seriously warned by judicious friends not to commit himself on either side of what was then a volatile issue. Crowe bought a copy on the spot for twenty-five cents and, when the two travelers arrived in the South, executed a number of highly engaging pictures of the black population. These all appeared in a book later published by Crowe entitled With Thackeray in America.

The novelist himself declined to render an account of his visit to America or to make any pronouncements on slavery. Still we learn of his views as expressed in private letters that were eventually printed, some of which are quoted in my recently published book Passage to America (London: I.B. Tauris). From them we must surmise that Thackeray’s view of an enslaved population was based less on sympathy than on economic efficiency. He wrote that “the negroes don’t shock me or excite my compassionate feelings at all; they are so grotesque and happy that I can’t cry over them.” He went on to say that the institution of slavery was

the clumsiest and most costly domestic an agricultural machine that ever was devised. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the tirades of the Abolitionists may not destroy it, but common sense infallibly will before long, and every proprietor would be rid of his slaves if he could, not in the cotton-growing States I mean, but in households and in common agricultural estates.

Gloria Deák
New York City

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