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Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South.

Steven Weisenburger. Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998. 352 pp. $25.00.

Since the publication of Toni Morrison's Beloved, the story of Margaret Garner, who killed her child rather than see it returned to slavery, has returned to public consciousness. Curiously, however, the novel's historical background has remained obscure. Steven Weisenburger's Modem Medea remedies this gap with an impressive array of evidence about the Garners' lives; he provides a more complete picture of Garner than any previous account. This meticulously researched book tells a fascinating story in its own right; it will also help critics to understand Morrison's aesthetic choices by enabling them to see where Morrison actively shaped her source material.

Breaking with the tradition of interpreting Margaret Garner as the heroic mother who single-handedly murders her children in order to rescue them from the horrors of slavery, Weisenburger emphasizes that the Garners "fled North, as a family." Both Margaret and her husband, Robert, suffered the insecurities and indignities that were endemic to slavery. From the time he was nine years old, Robert was sold, repurchased, and hired to farmers and tradesmen throughout northern Kentucky. Margaret apparently had to fight off the advances of white men very early, and chose the same tragic strategy as Harriet Jacobs--she married Robert at age sixteen, and immediately got pregnant. This strategy did not save her from victimization. Each of Margaret's last four children--including the unborn child she was carrying when she escaped--was born six or seven months after the birth of one of Elizabeth Gaines's children. All were lightskinned, suggesting that A. K. Gaines used Margaret as a sexual substitute while his wife was pregnant.

Why did Margaret Garner murder Mary, her own three-year-old daughter? According to Weisenburger, Garner had "a tangled skein of motives: despairing desires to 'save' her children, urges for violent backlash against the master who had probably made her his concubine and who might in turn victimize little Mary, and a destructive spite for her children's whiteness." Weisenburger's emphasis on Garner's attack on Massa through the agency of his children differs dramatically from the rhetoric of protection that dominates current writing about Garner. In addition, the story Weisenburger has uncovered about A. K. Gaines's reaction to the murder should lead historians to new insights about relationships between slaves and slaveholders. Apparently, Gaines became almost neurotically obsessed with Mary's corpse, "sobbing uncontrollably" for hours, not allowing others near the body, and bringing it home to Kentucky tied to his own saddle. While Gaines's attachment to his daughter doesn't absolve his guilt for forcing Mar garet into a sexual relationship, it offers a complex, compelling image of what Toni Morrison characterizes as the "jungle" of the slaveholder's consciousness.

Jurisdictional disputes over control of the Garners during their Fugitive Slave Law hearings led to several public, armed standoffs between U.S. Marshals and Hamilton County Sheriff Gazoway Brashears. Editors throughout the U.S. reported these clashes along with stirring legal rhetoric from the Garners' lawyer, John Jolliffe ("my clients would go singing to the gallows" rather than return to the "seething, boiling hot hell of American slavery"), and political rhetoric from abolitionist Lucy Stone (comparing Margaret to "those who fought the battle of liberty on Bunker's Hill"). For six weeks in the winter of 1856, then, the Garners were the focus of the nation's "prelude to fratricidal war."

Weisenburger interprets the Garners' refusal to speak in their own defense as a rejection of the "tyrannical ... legal machinery" of slavery. In the absence of their voices, "opponents in the slavery struggle hastened into the contest over her meaning." Weisenburger's analysis is impressive both in its national scope and in his detailed interpretations of both legal and personal issues. One area of particular interest is Jolliffe's innovative legal strategy. Jolliffe asserted the unconstitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law based on a First Amendment argument that Slave Commissioners could not obey the law while observing the Ten Commandments. Commissioner Pendery ignored this argument, claiming that he based his decision to remand the Garners to slavery on the Supreme Court's 1851 decision Strader vs. Graham. However, Pendery's decision was actually based on Justice Roger Taney's "obiter dictum" in that case--an unofficial opinion of one justice, and not the law. The result, Weisenburger shows, is that Pen dery was able to skirt the "profound constitutional questions" posed by Margaret Garner's infanticide.

When the Garners were remanded to Kentucky they were accompanied by an armed force, in Weisenburger's estimate, of nearly eight hundred men. The Garners were then shuttled up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in a calculated effort to prevent a murder trial, which would likely focus on Gaines's sexual abuse as a mitigating factor in Margaret's murder of her--and his--child. Partly because of Gaines's cleverness, and partly because of Salmon Portland Chase's horror at Garner's infanticide, Gaines succeeded in preventing a murder trial. As a result, the surviving Garners were eventually settled on a plantation just north of Vicksburg, where Margaret died of typhoid fever in 1858.

In addition to his historical account of the Garners, Weisenburger explores the stories, sermons, poems, and myths that proliferated about Garner in the 1850s. Antebellum Americans appropriated Garner "as a cultural icon, whose power to figure political and social agendas and tensions did not require being true to specific, complex facts." Weisenburger's argument that this avoidance of the truth of Garner's story led to her erasure from American history is not fully convincing. He seems on firmer ground when he argues that Garner's challenge to a complex set of beliefs about women, about African Americans, and about white paternalism made her too threatening to remember. In Weisenburger's words, "when the infanticidal mother acts out the system's violent logic in the master's face,... she mirrors his violent politics in profoundly disruptive ways.... In such moments the dispossessed mother represents unutterable contradictions that the dominant culture must repress or mask." As Toni Morrison did in Beloved, Steven Weisenburger tears off the mask, revealing the complex realities of a particularly brutal and heartrending episode in African American history.
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Author:Eden, Edward
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
Previous Article:Toni Morrison.
Next Article:Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison.

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