Swallow Barn and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Swallow Barn and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Swallow Barn and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Relationships, regardless of the nature, can be as subjective as their individual participants. As

well, stories are usually told from a single perspective. The works of literature, Swallow Barn and

Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl, that will be examined in this essay are as different as black and

white, figuratively and literally. It is no wonder then, that the relationships between master and slave

are depicted with the same degree of variation. To understand such a diverse set of paintings –

literature, it is necessary to know the artists who have produced the works: to include their race, social

standing, economic situation, politics and gender. This essay will attempt to shed light on all.

Swallow Barn, by John Pendleton Kennedy, is romantic portrayal of the Old

South.(Andrews,59) Kennedy wrote about a life that he knew and from a perspective that was familiar.

While “Kennedy did not grow up on a plantation but in the city of Baltimore, where his father, a

prosperous merchant, and his mother, who came from a highly regarded Virginia family, gave him

every educational advantage; eventually graduating first in his class from Baltimore College”. (59)

“He was admitted to the Maryland state bar in 1816, and later married Elizabeth Gray, the daughter of a

wealthy manufacturer.” (59) According to the text, “Kennedy was no stranger to plantation life, having

often vised the Bower, the ancestral home of his wife's family in western Virginia.” (59) It can be

theorized that this exposure, without total immersion, into the Southern plantation prompted a

romanticized ideal of this lifestyle; thus, producing the same in Swallow Barn. This idea begins

immediately for the reader with Kennedy's description of “Swallow Barn as an aristocratical old

edifice, that squats, like a brooding hen, on the southern bank of the James River. It is quietly seated in


a kind of shady pocket or nook, formed by a sweep of the stream, on a gentle acclivity thinly sprinkled

with oaks, whose magnificent branches afford habitation and defence...” (60) In this description, the

reader can be led to assume that life for the inhabitants of this sanctuary is likely protected, calm and

amiable. This would include the relationships of Frank Meriwether and his slaves. This is supported

further by the anthologists who said, “Kennedy portrayed black people as serene in their

servitude”.(Andrews, 59) Was this intentional? I believe that it was. However, these master and slave

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relationships work as they are depicted in Swallow Barn.

To understand how slavery in any context can be accepted without resistance, we first must

acknowledge that it probably wasn't. However, for the successful telling of the story of Swallow Barn,

Kennedy did not need the range of the story to include racial tensions and issues. Additionally,

creating anomosity of this nature, which revolves around such an obviously amiable, well-natured

character, as Frank Meriwether, would be inconsistent. This can be seen in Kennedy's initial

introduction and description of Meriwether, as follows: “Frank Meriwether is now in the meridian of

life; -somewhere close upon forty-five. Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him.”

(Kennedy, 62) Again, as with Kennedy's first description of Swallow Barn, the reader immediately

begins to feel a comfort with this character. There is nothing to suggest he would be a difficult or mean

to anyone, including his slaves. Kennedy's description of Frank Meriwether is strikingly similar to

Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, in Emma. Austen describes Emma has pretty, rich, and someone

who has not been very “vexed” by life. Perhaps it is this previous exposure to Emma that allows me to

expect or accept Kennedy's light nature for the inhabitants of Swallow Barn. From this, the first

introduction of slaves seems to fit when we read, “the family linen is usually spread out by some sturdy

negro women, who chant shrill ditties over their wash tubs, and keep up a spirited attack, both of

tongue and hand, upon sundry little besmirched and bow-legged blacks.” (61) Later when we are


introduced to Carey, the negro who takes care of Meriwether's horses, we are told that “Carey, who, in

his reverence for the occupation, is the perfect shadow of his master.” (65) We anticipate a respect,

regardless of the subservience, from master and slave. The relationship is quite dynamic and engaging.

We learn that Carey speaks his mind to Meriwether; and while “Meriwether gets a little nettled by

Carey's doggedness, he generally turns it off in a laugh.” (65)

The relationship between master and slave in Swallow Barn is one of mutual respect. While it

must have been understood that their was not equality at this time in history, Kennedy did not need to

pursue any of these issues dramatically for this story. It can be debated as to whether Kennedy was

promoting the Southern Plantation lifestyle. It is my belief, from what I have read, that these were not

motivations for the story. The story, and its author, do not seem to have any agenda other than to

entertain. If the master and slave relationships had been different, like the ones to be discussed by

Harriet Ann Jacobs, an argument for a different intent could be made.

Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs, offers a much different

relationship between master and slave. As was done with Kennedy, before examining Jacobs'

characters in this work, it is important to understand the author. “Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton,

North Carolina, and was the first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the United States.”

(Andrews, 125) It is significant to consider that while Jacobs changed names and locations, Incidents

is considered an autobiography. Jacobs' primary motive in writing Incidents was to address white

sympathizers, particularly women, over slavery. (126) “Jacobs faced a task considerably more

complicated than that of any African American woman before her because she felt obliged to disclose

through her firsthand example the special injustices that black women suffered.” (126) Therefore,

Jacobs deals with complex issues between the master and slave. For her, the situation was doubly

perilous, because of the victimization of slave women by white men. Jacobs dimensions for Linda


Brent's problems also stem from her light skin and beauty. As we have discussed, Incidents plot is of

the tragic mulatto.

Linda Brent's early childhood did not encompass struggles like she would face as a maturing

woman. She says, “I was born a slave; but, I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed

away.” (Jacobs, 127) From the onset, the reader is swayed by the inference that despite a happy

beginning, there is worse to come. Jacobs style is to quickly tell the reader that regardless of the

situation, once a person realizes that are a slave, there is no more good to life. This is evidenced in the

reflection about her grandmother's relationship with with her owners who “took special interest to take

care of such a valuable piece of property.” (128) Earlier in life, Brent's relationship with her mistress

was seemingly pleasant. She says, “no toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed upon me. My

mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her.” (129)

When Brent was twelve, this favorable situation changed when her mistress died. From this point,

Brent becomes the property of the daughter of Dr. Flint. It is this relationship that will dominate the

story and be told from the authors point of view.

The relationship between Dr. Flint and Linda Brent was exceedingly complicated. When Brent

turned fifteen, Flint “began to whisper foul words in her ear.” (134) Despite the age difference, Brent

became a sexual object to Flint. She began to treat the comments with indifference or contempt;

however, Flint's age and situation required that she endure the treatment. (134) An ever present

animosity toward Flint can be seen in this early description, “he was a crafty man, and resorted to many

means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes, he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims

tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue.” (134) According to

Brent, Flint “met her at every turn, reminding her that she belonged to him, and swearing by heaven

and earth that he would compel her to submit to him.” (135) And so, the story and this relationship


continues in such a manner. Despite Brent's escape, until Flint's death, she appeared to have no real


Referring back to a literary plot significant for Jacobs' time, the tragic mulatto, it is important to

understand the perspective of the author. While Incidents is a biographical account of Jacobs' life, the

story is presented in a epistomelogical format. Watching the tug of war between Brent and Flint, and

the good versus evil these characters encapsulate, the reader should try to understand the agenda of the

author. As well, a greater understanding of the author's style of writing can be gained by reading other

novels that may have been an influence for plot and structure. In particular, while reading Jacobs, I

thought of similar characters from Samuel Richard's, Clarissa . In Clarissa, Clarissa Harlowe is

victimized repeatedly by Lovelace, whose desires are similar to Flint's- sexual submission. Clarissa is

the model for all that is pure and perfect; while Lovelace is the antithesis. Between the two, as with

Brent and Flint, there is a constant struggle to wit and out-wit.

Swallow Barn and Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl owe a great deal of their literary effect

because of the relationships between the masters and slaves. These books came from strikingly

different authors with very different goals; which I believe were achieved with these intentional

characters and their relationships. Kennedy does not focus on the struggles between masters and

slaves. It has been said that one of his greatest strengths was his ability as an author to be agreeable.

(Andrews 60) Jacobs, on the other hand, succeeds because in tragedy, all is not agreeable. She wrote

to attract a particular reader and grab hold with as much emotion as possible.


Works Cited

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl. 1861. The Norton Anthology

of Literature of the American South. William L. Andrews, et. al, eds. New York:

W. W. Norton & Co. 1998. C. 125 – 153.

Kennedy, John Pendleton. Swallow Barn. 1832. The Norton Anthology of Literature of

the American South. William L. Andrews, et al, eds. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

1998. C. 58 -63
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