Poe's steadfast servant in the aftermath of Walker's Appeal.
Dubbed by Scott Peeples a "minstrel-show sidekick," Jupiter has elicited consistent critical commentary (39). (1) Toni Morrison's claim in Playing in the Dark that "The Gold-Bug" delights in the threat of upended hierarchies, evident in Jupiter's virtual guardianship of Legrand, while widely referenced, has had little impact on how scholarship understands Jupiter's role in the story or on Poe's deployment of racialized tropes more broadly. Teresa A. Goddu, recognizing "the general critical tendency to reduce the multiple agendas of Morrison's project to a singular hunt for figures of blackness," calls for analysis that telescopes out from Poe's texts to culture more broadly. Rather than attempting to forge "a clear path back to Poe's authorial consciousness," scholarship should pay more attention to the deployment of "genre" and "conventions," Goddu contends, for doing so would situate Poe's literary engagements with race within a "larger sociocultural field and at the nexus of multiple cultural discourses" (15). In the case of "The Gold-Bug," we stand to gain from the shift in focus that Goddu recommends--from sleuthing for clues to Poe's racial psychology to historicizing and contextualizing his deployment of literary devices that carry racialized meaning.
Jupiter's seeming dedication and freedom of mobility acquire new meaning when read in light of 1830 Louisiana legislation that called for removal of recently manumitted freedmen and prevented free persons of color from entering the state (Robinson 112-14). In addition to ridding the state of free persons of color, the Louisiana law outlined punitive measures for circulating texts aimed to produce "insubordination" among slaves and free blacks (Robinson 10). Identifying both freely circulating black bodies and texts as threatening, the Louisiana legislation was part of a series of Southern laws passed in late 1829 and 1830 in response to the unchecked dissemination of an antislavery, black-authored pamphlet from Boston, David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829-30). (2) The Appeal forcefully argues for both the end of slavery and the rights of African Americans already free, and against efforts to recolonize black Americans to Africa. Walker issues an uncompromising vision of black citizenship and makes clear that, in the spirit of the American Revolution, black Americans were ready to take up arms to bring it to pass. Confronted with a text of black authorship making its way quickly and surreptitiously into the far reaches of the South, state authorities sought to control black mobility of any kind.
To be sure, while the pamphlet's content was considered radical, its rampant circulation contributed to the labeling of it as "incendiary." Following the 1829 printing, two editions were released in the next year as the pamphlet appeared in port cities from Wilmington to Charleston to Savannah to New Orleans. Legislation banning seditious literature and limiting the freedoms of the free black and enslaved populations followed in the wake of the pamphlet's discovered movement. Periodical culture circulated news of the pamphlet and the laws which followed, ensuring that the regional response gained national visibility. (3) Southern newspapers reported on the pamphlet, quoting from Walker's text, providing specifics about its circulation, and detailing the reactions it elicited, while northern newspapers republished these articles and ran their own, all of which extended the pamphlet's reach. While Poe was living in Richmond in early 1830, the Richmond Enquirer ran at least five articles in January through March concerning the Appeal'. (4) The Richmond Daily Whig reported in early January that the General Assembly had convened to address the Appeal's appearance in Virginia. (5) When Poe moved to West Point, New York, in May of that year, he would have had further opportunity to read about the Appeal in the New York Evening Post, which ran two articles linking the circulation of Walker's pamphlet to slave conspiracies. (6) Poe also had access to Garrison's Boston-based but nationally-circulated Liberator; which reported on and published lengthy excerpts of the Appeal, beginning with the appearance of the very first issue on January 1, 1831.
The history of the reception of Walker's pamphlet in the South, as well as its content, call for re-examination of "The Gold-Bug," one of Poe's only stories explicitly set in the region. Evidence within "The Gold-Bug" pinpoints its acknowledgment of a South significantly altered by the Appeal's circulation and reception there. The story stages a South in the wake of legislation spurred by the circulation of the Appeal, legislation that heightened the experience of contingency for the South's free black population. Without explicitly commenting on the Southern response to abolitionist print, Poe's story dramatizes its effects: Jupiter's seemingly voluntary movement overlays the historical reality of post-laws that circumscribed black autonomy. Laws to impede the dissemination of Walker's pamphlet coincided with redoubled efforts already in place (via law and custom) to strip free blacks of agency of movement. Traveling, relocating, and staying put each carried risks during a period when non-enslaved African descendants were routinely considered strange, shiftless, and threatening. As Robert S. Levine underscores, Walker's account of his own "transgressive ability to circulate" through a number of US cities as a freeman before settling in Boston is part of the audacity--and strategy--of his Appeal (97). The post-Appeal context, in which legislators passed further limitations on black mobility, informs and complicates Poe's depiction of Jupiter's exercise of fidelity.
The South of Poe's story includes the very racial hierarchy that Walker warns will not endure. Even as "The Gold-Bug" indirectly takes us back to the Appeal's appearance in the South, it also projects into the future: Poe's depiction of a freedman who remains in the region operates as an imagined future South in which slavery no longer predominates. This future South critically differs, however, from Walker's. Specifically, Walker insists on a future for African descendants in the US, identifying his black readers as "citizens" at a time when the American Colonization Society was actively working to convince the public that American citizenship and blackness were mutually exclusive. (7) Walker explicitly calls out the ACS for defaming free blacks: "See the African Repository and Colonial Journal, from its commencement to the present day--see how we are through the medium of that periodical, abused and held up by the Americans, as the greatest nuisance to society, and throat-cutters in the world" (69). Calling attention to the nominal freedom experienced by free people of color, Walker further demands a black citizenship in which African Americans would not be limited to menial labor, "for America is as much our country, as it is yours" (70). In contrast, "The Gold-Bug" envisions a future for the South which is mostly reassuring to its white readership: even in a future South without slavery, the racial hierarchy would stay intact, and freedmen would remain servants to former masters, though the threat of rebellion would persist. Restoring Walker's Appeal and its movement to the historical memory of readers of Poe's story has implications not only for reexamining Jupiter and apprehending the story's narrative strategy but also for thinking about Poe's engagement with race more broadly. Attending to Southern legal history and utilizing book history methodologies calls attention to the presence of Walker's Appeal in Poe's story, enabling an analysis that moves beyond the author's own racial attitudes or anxieties and illuminating instead the story's use of a racialized trope in imagining a future for the South and the role of African descendants in that future.
The Trope of the Steadfast Servant, Post-Appeal Laws, and Black Consent
The plot of "The Gold-Bug" takes shape around the discovery of a gold-colored beetle along with a parchment containing a map drawn by the legendary pirate, Captain Kidd. Legrand enlists Jupiter along with the narrator in a search for the buried treasure. The narrator, a local physician and reluctant participant, speculates that Jupiter's insistence that the beetle is "a bug of real gold" has contributed to Legrand's "lunacy," manifested in monomaniacal pursuit (333). Much to the narrator's astonishment, the lunatic's zeal pays off when they strike gold, more than enough to "reinstate [Legrand] in [his] family possessions" (328) in New Orleans, but the future of the black servant is left ominously unclear.
Before the search for gold begins, the narrator recounts details about Jupiter's and Legrand's lives prior to their arrival in South Carolina as he tries to make sense of their relationship. Recent transplants from New Orleans to Sullivan's Island, the pair live together in relative isolation. As for the formerly wealthy Legrand, "a series of misfortunes had reduced him to want." He relocates to South Carolina to "avoid the mortification consequent upon his disasters" (321). We also learn that he experiences fluctuating "perverse moods." Jupiter, having been manumitted by the Legrand family, moves across the country with Legrand, a decision for which the narrator offers a pat, if somewhat untidy, explanation:
[Legrand] was usually accompanied by an old negro, called Jupiter, who had been manumitted before the reverses of the family, but who could be induced, neither by threats nor by promises, to abandon what he considered his right of attendance upon the footsteps of his young "Massa Will." It is not improbable that the relatives of Legrand, conceiving him to be somewhat unsettled in intellect, had contrived to instil this obstinacy into Jupiter, with a view to the supervision and guardianship of the wanderer. (322)
The narrator readily accepts the idea that the servant's unwavering loyalty explains his willingness to move across state lines with the former master. And his speculation that the family, concerned about Legrand's mental condition, encouraged Jupiter to become Legrand's valet seems reasonable. But the two lengthy, meandering sentences marked by embedded phrases, the passive voice ("was accompanied," "had been manumitted," "could be induced"), and a double negative ("not improbable") work against the narrator's facile explanations. In particular, the structure of the second sentence conspicuously emphasizes that Jupiter--somehow--was made to feel "obstina[te]" about remaining with Legrand. The narrator's diction betrays an uncertainty that he himself cannot perceive. The convoluted language coupled with the narrator's lack of interest in questioning his own assumptions invites speculation that there is more to Jupiter's sticking by Legrand's side than meets the eye.
The detail that the Legrands set Jupiter free "before the reverses of the family" likewise calls for pause. Because the manumission predates the financial fall, benevolence might seem an apt explanation for the decision. However, financial savvy--rather than benevolence--likely brought about the manumission. Namely, foreseeing their approaching financial ruin, the family stood a better chance of preventing the slave's being seized by creditors (and thus ensuring that Jupiter could serve as Legrand's "valet") by manumitting him, though the narrator fails to draw this conclusion. Antebellum legal literature supports this interpretation. Jacob D. Wheeler's A Practical Treatise on the Law of Slavery (1837) addresses the issue of manumission of enslaved persons when the master has accumulated debt:
With respect to emancipation, it may be stated as a principle without an exception, that, as slaves are considered as property upon which creditors have a right to look for the payment of their debts due by the owners of slaves, regard must be had to the rights of the creditor; and no emancipation is valid when those rights are violated. (310)
Jupiter, then, needed to be manumitted before the Legrands were officially recognized as insolvent. With respect to the "Civil Code of Louisiana, art. 190," Wheeler's remarks reflect that the same general principle applies specifically in Louisiana law: "an express provision is to be found guarding the right of emancipation, and saving the rights of creditors" (310). (In this context, "saving" means "excepting.") Wheeler's Treatise thus confirms the doubt that the unwitting narrator casts on the seeming benevolence of the Legrands.
If Southern legal history sheds light on the family's motivations for granting the manumission, how might we explain Jupiter's motivations --his willingness to move after acquiring his free papers? In addition to clarifying the reasons for Jupiter's manumission, legal history also illuminates the relevance of Walker's Appeal to the setting of the story. Louisiana laws passed in 1830 regulating the free black population--the legislative response to the appearance of Walker's pamphlet in the state--stipulated, among other things, that manumitted slaves must "permanently depart from the state, within one month from and after the passage of the act of emancipation" (Robinson 112). Louisiana law responsive to the Appeal's circulation thus required that Jupiter leave Louisiana. As Peter P. Hinks notes, Louisiana "gained notoriety" for its anti-free black legislation in 1830 (151). Newspapers with a national circulation referred to it as a "very severe law." (8) The pamphlet's immediate impact on the free black population in Louisiana was not obscure legal knowledge but rather a shared knowledge sensational in tenor and national in scope.
Via the narrator's complicated description of Jupiter and Legrand's relationship, the story signals self-awareness of what I term the steadfast servant, a trope that would become prevalent in postbellum literature expressing nostalgia for the Old South but that had become a regular feature of early and mid-nineteenth-century novels, including those by James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms. (9) The white master can depend on the steadfast servant, despite eccentricities and ignorance, to be, at the very least, ever present. In some manifestations, the slave not only seems content in enslavement but also explicitly refuses manumission when offered. Nonetheless, abolitionist fiction readily utilized the trope. A. Mott's Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Colour (1826), an anti-slavery compendium, includes several entries featuring a steadfast servant who remains faithful after manumission. In one example, "The Good Master and the Faithful Slave," Faithful James accepts manumission only after the master allows him to stay as a hired hand. (10) Whereas depictions of steadfast servants in anti-abolitionist literature communicated the purported contentment of slaves, their presence in abolitionist print attested to the noble character of African descendants, thus rendering their subjugation in slavery all the more unjust. Jupiter's seeming simple-mindedness, dialect, and superstitious beliefs (he believes the found beetle to be made of gold ) mark him as comic version of the trope with which Poe's contemporary readers would be familiar. But in briefly but significantly speculating on the circumstances of Jupiter's manumission, the narrator unconsciously calls attention to his fidelity. The narrator's unconsciousness, however, should not be ascribed to the author. What initially appears to be Poe's straightforward indulgence in racial stereotype proves to be more complicated: by way of the narrator, Poe signals that the story is a rumination on the form and function of racialized tropes.
Bringing the Appeal to bear on "The Gold-Bug" thus challenges interpretations of Poe's story to date. Terence Whalen, for example, contends that Poe strategically includes a loyal freedman in "The Gold-Bug" to avoid the divisive issue of slavery and to make the story more palatable to a national audience by depicting a South without slavery, "a sanitized South that could circulate freely in the national literary market." Whalen's claim that depictions of loyal slaves and benevolent masters would elicit "outcry" from non-southern (i.e., "national") readers (Edgar Allan Poe 142), however, does not correspond with literary history. As previously noted, the steadfast servant was a trope already deployed by non-Southern authors and circulating among a national audience and beyond. The trope itself was anything but regional.
Rather than primarily signaling the author's racial anxieties, blatant racism, or effort to appeal to national tastes, the deployment of the racialized trope of the steadfast servant becomes the story's means of calling attention to the notion of an authentic slave fidelity. In light of the legal history related to the Appeal and Poe's likely familiarity with it, Jupiter's willingness to follow his former master from New Orleans to Sullivan's Island probably stems from a limited range of choice rather than undying loyalty. Given the scarcity of options available to free blacks in the South and surrounding states, Jupiter's willingness to remain with Legrand could be seen as strategic. (11) The racial humor carries with it the uneasy acknowledgment that both slaves and freedmen could perform fidelity for their own ends. Given the temporal proximity to Nat Turner's 1831 revolt, Poe was in a position to interrogate assertions of slave contentment emanating from the South. With nationally reported organized slave violence in the not too distant past, Poe's seeming perpetuation of the idea of black fidelity can be understood as comical scrutiny and perhaps indicates that historical evidence already had punctured the myth.
While the post-Appeal laws suggest that Jupiter may have recognized that his best option was to move with Legrand, the narrator's language in describing Jupiter's attachment to his former master suggests another possibility. The narrator's speculation that the Legrands may "have contrived to instil this obstinacy into Jupiter" (322) suggests that Jupiter was somehow coerced into continuing to serve "Massa Will." Since the trope of the steadfast servant trades on the slave's volition--his desire to serve, even when offered freedom--the narrator's conjecture on the role of the Legrands diminishes the possibility that Jupiter exercised consent. In raising questions about the role of consent in the freedman's mobility, the story reflects debates concerning African colonization that circulated in print following Nat Turner's revolt only a little more than a year after the passage of Louisiana's post-Appeal laws. The debates pivoted at least in part on the notion of "consent," offering further indication that Poe's strategic use of the racialized trope is rooted in the prominent debates of his era about the futures of black Americans.
To deflect criticism from abolitionists, proponents of African colonization routinely insisted that transportation to colonies required the consent of the free blacks involved. However, in the immediate aftermath of Turner's revolt, when the Virginia House of Delegates debated the possibility of enacting colonization, mandatory removal was under consideration. In a widely reprinted 1832 speech originally delivered before the Virginia House of Delegates, (12) colonization proponent William Henry Brodnax called for legislation requiring that removal be "compulsory," rather than merely purport to be "voluntary," while resorting to violence to secure the "consent" of free blacks (43):
Who does not know that when a free negro, by crime or otherwise, has rendered himself obnoxious to a neighborhood, how easy it is for a party to visit him one night, take him from his bed and family, and apply to him the gentle admonition of a severe flagellation, to induce him to consent to go away. In a few nights the dose can be repeated, perhaps increased, until, in the language of the physicians, quantum suff. has been administered to produce the desired operation; and the fellow then becomes perfectly willing to move away. (43)
Such methods more commonly drew the rebuke of anti-colonizationists, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison among them. In his extended critique of the American Colonization Society (ACS), Thoughts on African Colonization (1832), Garrison denounces the ACS's methods, identifying its black participants as "forced to turn volunteers" (17). Although Walker does not focus on the issue of consent explicitly in his own criticism of the ACS, he does identify colonization as an effort to "drive us from our country and homes" (68). Throughout the antebellum period, critics of the ACS argued unflaggingly that when it came to African American mobility, what appeared voluntary was often compulsory. (13) These sources detail a practicable method by which the Legrands might have carried out their plan "to instil this obstinacy into Jupiter."
Poe's editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger, as Whalen underscores, made him familiar with debates about African colonization, if he were not already (Edgar Allan Poe 124-29). Whatever Poe's personal take on the issues of colonization and forced consent, these national debates invite us to reassess the significance of Jupiter, especially with regard to the trope of the steadfast servant. (14) Whether the narrator's ambiguity speaks to the Legrands' coercion or Jupiter's agency in performing loyalty for his own ends, it exposes the trope to be functioning less as a stereotype and more as a clever ruse. Thus we can see Poe's depiction of Jupiter reflecting the period's public debates about African colonization and black consent.
"A servant is a slave to the man whom he serves"
As the nation considered possible futures for slavery and African descendants, with various white factions cohering around the idea of ridding the South of roaming, free blacks, Walker's pamphlet surreptitiously made its way through the region, affirming the right of African descendants to remain where they were and exposing African colonization schemes as pro-slavery. Divided into four articles, the Appeal concludes with its longest section, "Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Colonizing Plan." Here Walker exposes the American Colonization Society's agenda as a "trick," an endgame that depended upon the removal of free blacks so that slavery could persist (67).
In addressing white readers, Walker utilizes the form of the jeremiad to entertain two possible futures: if the country will repent, end slavery and racial oppression, and "make a national acknowledgment" of its wrongs, "there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together" (70). If it will not, "wo, wo, will be to you if we have to obtain our freedom by fighting" (70). To be sure, more than a denouncement of slavery, the Appeal is a call for a comprehensive change in the nation's relationship to African descendants. The use of the term "coloured citizens" in the title resonates throughout the text, as does reference to the "natural right" of African Americans; together these terms contribute to an uncompromising vision of black citizenship (71).
Though Walker insists that his black readers in the US already possess citizenship, he points to a future with a vastly different racial status quo. In order to forge a collective black identity, Walker underscores the similarities in the plights of free and enslaved black Americans and highlights for his free readers the limitations to whatever freedoms they may know. He identifies the dangers of traveling except "as a slave to a white man" as well as the economic disadvantage ensured by being limited to menial labor (28). In either case, "a servant is a slave to the man whom he serves" (28). (15) Walker decries a shared spirit of resignation between the free and enslaved. To combat apathy and galvanize black readers, he incorporates the image of slaves forced to dig for gold in each of the four articles constituting the document.
Explicit references to slaves digging for gold, more frequent than references to slaves working plantation fields, appear at least ten times in the pamphlet, with an additional three references to slaves' digging in mines. In one particular instance, Walker deploys the image as he parrots the viewpoint of colonizationists in order to contest it: "get the free people of colour away to Africa, from among the slaves, where they may at once be blessed and happy, and those who we hold in slavery, will be contented to rest in ignorance and wretchedness, to dig up gold and silver for us and our children" (52). By rhetorically situating himself as part of the white "we" intent on perpetuating slavery, Walker exposes the unspoken motives behind colonization schemes, identifying the ostensible benevolence as a ruse. This specific image of black labor complements Walker's expose of the American Colonization Society: while slavery apologists as well as colonizationists cloak master/slave relations in the language of patriarchal benevolence, Walker's image of slaves digging for gold communicates that the monetary value of slave labor, rather than white magnanimity or slave loyalty, constitutes the tie that binds. The image not only identifies and disrupts the white pastoral fantasy of the slave "contented" in enslavement (a fantasy conveyed by the steadfast servant trope) but also connects it to the ACS's agenda to forestall black citizenship.
Using the image of slaves digging for gold, Walker makes clear that the actions of enslaved persons should not be understood as expressions of loyalty to the plantation system. Several times in the Appeal, Walker excerpts another source not only to advise black readers on its significance, but also to instruct white readers on how to interpret African American actions in order to disabuse them of the idea of an authentic slave fidelity. Quoting from the Columbian Centinel, Walker reports on a group of slaves who, while being transported to Mississippi, attacked the driver and endeavored to escape, but whose attempt ultimately failed because one slave assisted the injured driver in fleeing. "Brethren," he asks his black readers, "what do you think of this?" (24). He then offers some possibilities for interpreting the individual's behavior: given that African descendants are "more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European," the act could be an expression of undeserved charity or, more likely, a demonstration of "servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance" (24-25). Either way, Walker makes clear that loyalty to whites was not the cause. Having revealed what might be mistaken for loyalty as degradation, Walker turns to the image of slaves digging for gold to rally black readers: "Here is a set of wretches, who had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them around the country like brutes, to dig up gold and silver for them, (which they will get enough of yet.) Should the lives of such creatures be spared?" (25). Walker repeatedly refers to the role of slave labor in gold mining to generate outrage in his black readers over their ongoing grievances, shared by the enslaved and nominally free alike. The image likewise serves as a warning to whites that efforts to keep black Americans subservient--via enslavement and systemic racism--would not be endured for long. Walker's controlling image underpins the pamphlet's insistence on a future for African descendants in the US, one that would extend beyond servitude.
Insurrectionary Impulses in "The Gold-Bug"
Given that the image of slaves digging for gold is the centerpiece around which Walker organizes arguments asserting black citizenship, condemning colonization schemes, and disabusing whites of the notion of an authentic slave fidelity, Poe's depiction of a freedman's role in his former master's quest for gold is especially noteworthy. Jupiter assists Legrand in regaining his lost economic status in literal terms--via digging for gold. The story thus concretizes the economic underpinnings of the relationship between master and servant. Through Poe's redeployment of Walker's gold-digging slave, "The Gold-Bug" reassures its white readership that even in a future South without slavery, the racial hierarchy would remain intact. (16) Featuring a free black and his former master living together in isolation with only brief mention of a distant plantation and its "older negroes," "The Gold-Bug" imagines a future South in which only a remnant of the slave system remains (346). The spatial distance of the plantation, we could say, stands in for temporal distance, so that the lone plantation is a holdover from the past. However, the embedded local history, insurrectionary impulses, and ominous ending regarding the freedman's future serve as the story's acknowledgment that what it offers readers is fantasy.
Just as the fantasy of uncovering gold and restoring one's Southern position is central to the plot, so too is the trope of the steadfast servant self-consciously deployed by Poe as white racial fantasy. By way of a white narrator (described as "obtuse" by Whalen ["Code" 50]), "The Gold-Bug" models how individuals rely on racial fantasy--born of cultural forms, such as black-face minstrelsy and literary convention--to create order and meaning, discounting evidence that disrupts the fantasy. Indeed, it is the narrator who enlists readers in reducing Jupiter to a trope. Poe places the narrator in the position of observing behavior that he readily interprets according to racialized literary convention, as though the narrator himself has read depictions of plantation dynamics--whether in abolitionist or anti-abolitionist literature--and come to rely on literary convention for navigating interracial dynamics in his narrative.
The narrator's limited interpretative power is most evident in his assumption that Jupiter would never help him take home the seemingly delusional Legrand: "Could I have depended, indeed, upon Jupiter's aid, I would have had no hesitation in attempting to get the lunatic home by force; but I was too well assured of the old negro's disposition, to hope that he would assist me under any circumstances, in a personal contest with his master" (333). The narrator fails to realize the significance of the fact that Jupiter had threatened to beat Legrand to rid him of his delusions, had independently considered "a personal contest with his master."
In recognizing that Jupiter's relocation stems from necessity or strategic choice rather than loyalty, we can interpret his threat to beat Legrand as his strongest act of agency, even though it reads as overtly comic. While Toni Morrison calls attention to the racially inflammatory moment in which Jupiter threatens to beat his master to rouse him from a supposed descent into insanity, critics have not noted that references to Jupiter's threat appear three times. First, Jupiter himself reports to Legrand's physician that it was only "Massa" Will's looking so "poorly" that deterred him from administering a beating (326). Legrand's letter to the physician provides the second appearance of this detail: "Would you believe it?--[Jupiter] had prepared a huge stick, the other day, with which to chastise me for giving him the slip, and spending the day, solus, among the hills on the main land. I verily believe that my ill looks alone saved me a flogging" (327). Finally, the conclusion of Legrand's explanation to the physician of how he cracked Kidd the pirate's code ends with this same image: "When I came home at night my valet proposed to give me a flogging" (347). These retellings ensure that the image of a club-wielding free African American in the South looms large.
However, Poe moderates the inflammatory effect of a weapon-wielding Jupiter by imposing a distance between the image and readers. Narrated by the physician, who recounts his involvement in Legrand's quest for buried treasure, the entire story unfolds in the past tense. The physician does not know about the proposed beating until Jupiter tells him, a month after he last saw Legrand and a few days after Jupiter had threatened his master, which removes the incident further from the present of the story's telling. Our access to this episode, then, is via retellings incorporated into the physician's main narrative. The repeated recounting of the incident takes up enough textual space to suggest its significance. But by distancing the retellings and casting them as comic, Poe tempers the overt sense of threat and outrage the visually powerful and potentially incendiary image of a free black man almost beating a white person inspires.
The repeated references to Jupiter's intended beating of Legrand reflect, too, Poe's engagement with the iconography of abolition, for the retellings invert a scene made familiar by the American Anti-Slavery Society during the 1830s: the image of whites flogging slaves. Periodicals published by the society, including The Slave's Friend and the Anti-Slavery Almanac, both of which entered print in 1836, ensured that iterations of the image circulated widely. Signaling its relationship to a broader print culture, "The Gold-Bug" inverts the image, transforming its attendant emotional power into a source of humor thinly veiling underlying revolutionary impulses.
These insurrectionary impulses accumulate significance as the text repeatedly, and in subtle ways, draws attention not only to Jupiter's having "prepared a huge stick," but also to other tools that he handles over the course of the story, particularly a scythe. The setting of the Charleston area, with its history of slave revolt, adds depth and meaning to the depiction of Jupiter carrying a scythe. While a short-lived slave insurrection occurred there in 1775, (17) the uprising still ringing in the ears of Poe's readers would have been the 1822 conspiracy led by Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had won a local lottery and purchased his freedom. (Poe was a young teenager living in Richmond, Virginia, when the plot was uncovered.) According to an article printed in the Charleston City Gazette and recirculated across the country, the conspirators not only had planned to raid the local arsenal but also had begun converting readily available tools, including "pike-handles," into weaponry. (18) The presiding magistrates of the Denmark Vesey trial, Lionel H. Kennedy and Thomas Parker, released An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection in the State of South Carolina (1822), which included slave testimony about plans to make weapons from scythes for the revolt (122, 123, 167).
Vesey's planned insurrection was not the only slave uprising that employed scythes as a material threat--so, too, was Nat Turner's revolt associated with them. Reports in the immediate aftermath of the revolt specifically place "swords" in the hands of the revolters. In Thomas R. Gray's The Confessions of Nat Turner; Turner testifies that he was armed with a "sword," the same sword he had when captured some weeks later (12, 13). Turner further details the various weapons employed: "Our number amounted now to fifty or sixty, all mounted and armed with guns, axes, swords and clubs" (14). Newspaper reports from 1831 likewise refer to Turner's "sword." (19) As the print emanating from the Vesey conspiracy demonstrates, references to "swords" in the context of slave revolt carried the implication of having been made from scythes. Indeed, later accounts in the antebellum period and beyond identify "scythes" among Turner's crew. (20) Antebellum readers, then, would have known that "sword" implied "scythe."
While the circulating print arising from the Vesey conspiracy and the Turner revolt made the notion of farm implements refashioned as weapons familiar, an 1835 incident in Buckingham County, Virginia, demonstrates how print culture firmly fixed the association between farm tools and weapons when wielded by black Southerners. A letter first published in the Richmond Compiler and republished in the Liberator reports that on September 4 a group of slaves set out to work the local gold mines with "their picks and pickaxes lifted in the air" ("More Alarms!" 164). When they neared a schoolhouse en route to work, word quickly spread that a revolt was underway, prompting the pupils to huddle in the swamp for much of the day until the misunderstanding was resolved. (21) The mere sight of slaves with tools was enough to catalyze white panic. In light of Charleston's recent Vesey conspiracy, Turner's revolt, and the Buckingham County incident, the scenes in "The Gold-Bug" that draw attention to the former slave's handling of a scythe take on new, potentially threatening, resonance.
The circulation and recirculation of these accounts of black rebellion--whether real or imagined--increased the ease with which a tool in the hand of a black Southerner could signify as weapon. But it is also true that following the appearance of Walker's Appeal, the launch of Garrison's Liberator (1831), and Turner's revolt, abolitionist print itself came to be conceptualized as a weapon. Published speeches and articles following events in Turner's Southampton County likened the act of circulating abolitionist print to supplying black Southerners with weapons for revolt. In an 1832 speech before the Virginia House of Delegates, Philip A. Bolling identifies Garrison and Walker as incendiaries and describes abolitionist print emanating from them as efforts "to sharpen the dagger in the hand of the midnight assassin" (8). (22) Like the scythe and dagger, print was seen as a tool with the potential for lethal force. At a time when the connection between print and armed revolution was keenly perceived, and given the range of ways in which Walker's Appeal provides a backdrop for Poe's story, the scythe may well function as a metonym for print itself. For while there were not laws to keep farm tools out of the hands of black Southerners, laws circumscribing black literacy and access to print were common. In short, a range of meanings aggregate around Jupiter's handling of the tool.
Wishing to involve the narrator in his search for gold, Legrand sends Jupiter to Charleston with a disturbing letter requesting that he come to the island due to "business of importance": "There was something in the tone of this note which gave me great uneasiness. Its whole style differed materially from that of Legrand." Despite his "uneasiness," the narrator complies and approaches the docked boat, but noticing its contents--"a scythe and three spades"--pauses to ask, "What is the meaning of all this, Jup?" Slow to get to the point, Jupiter clarifies that the tools belong to Legrand, to which the narrator responds, "Very true; but what are they doing here?" With "very true," the narrator seems to disclose that the thought of the free black possessing such implements is somehow odd. And the subsequent question--"but what are they doing here?"--is especially strange. It makes sense that Jupiter would have taken the boat to Charleston to purchase the tools, for the Sullivan's Island depicted in the opening paragraphs of the text is largely uninhabited, even desolate. In response, Jupiter explains what the narrator already should have known--that he had gone to town to purchase them (327).
The narrator's questions express more than mere confusion; they indicate an uneasiness about getting into the boat with Jupiter and the tools. Frustrated with Jupiter's vague response, the narrator attempts to ease his nervousness by poking fun at the freedman's dialect, asking, "But what, in the name of all that is mysterious, is your 'Massa Will' going to do with the scythes and spades?" In the process of using humor to quell his fears, the narrator betrays his growing anxiety by multiplying one scythe into several. The narrator continues, "Finding that no satisfaction was to be obtained of Jupiter, whose whole intellect seemed to be absorbed by 'de bug,' I now stepped into the boat and made sail." Again the narrator relieves his uneasiness at encountering Jupiter with suspicious farm implements, this time by cracking a joke about Jupiter's "intellect" (327). Given that antebellum commentators took solace in the notion that slaves lacked the intelligence to mastermind revolt, the narrator's belittling of Jupiter's "intellect" after noticing his tools is telling as an overt effort to resort to racial stereotype to navigate an inscrutable situation. As the narrator dismisses clues that might counter the usefulness of the racial stereotype for understanding Jupiter's situation and behavior, readers are invited to follow suit.
The emphasis on Jupiter's tools occurs again, and more strikingly, as Legrand, Jupiter, and the narrator search for buried treasure. The narrator takes stock of the things each carries, beginning with the valet: "Jupiter had with him the scythe and spades--the whole of which he insisted upon carrying--more through fear, it seemed to me, of trusting either of the implements within reach of his master, than from any excess of industry or complaisance" (329). Jupiter now wields a scythe as he accompanies two unarmed white men into the swamplands, the dashes isolating and drawing attention to the image of Jupiter armed. But any momentary anxiety the text registers is replaced, again, with a joke, this one about Jupiter's lack of initiative and "industry." In addition to assertions of the lack of intelligence among African descendants, antebellum commentators readily asserted that they lacked the industriousness to plot and execute revolt. The narrator's method of directing attention away from Jupiter's potential weapons after taking note of them is, again, revealing. Insofar as Poe raises the specter of black violent resistance only to overlie it with humor, he revises Walker's overt effort to substantiate the association of white fear with black revolution. (23)
In the Appeal, Walker makes clear that the free black population experiences a nominal freedom, providing the example of a contented African American shoeblack as evidence that the black population needs to be galvanized. It is not only, then, the slaves' digging for gold for their white masters that demonstrates the plight of African Americans. Conditions for freemen as well as slaves are cause for outcry. Rousing his black readership to outrage would, in turn, prick the fears of his secondary, white readership. "The Gold-Bug" likewise emphasizes the servility of its free black character while also exploiting the anxieties of its white readers about the South's black population. But it buries those anxieties in humor--ultimately working to elicit laughter, not terror, from its white readers. To this end, Poe uses Walker's image of slaves enlisted in the search for gold for comic effect. The former slave is now a valet, but tellingly remains a servant, assuring white readers that the racial hierarchy that Walker protests will persist.
Jupiter's insurrectionary impulses do not merely express authorial anxiety. (This is how such impulses frequently have been read in analyses of Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket , Harry Levin's the most notable among them.) (24) Rather, they signal that the picture of Southern futurity that Poe offers, one that hinges on the fidelity of former slaves, is a fantasy. "The Gold-Bug," then, works to convert white regional anxiety into national laughter, even while modeling how the process necessitates putting a national literary convention to the service of occluding not only local history but also the black-authored text at the center of that history.
Upon finally discovering and unearthing the treasure, Jupiter "fell upon his knees in the pit, and, burying his naked arms up to the elbows in gold, let them there remain, as if enjoying the luxury of a bath" (336). Here the free black becomes exactly what Walker warns that black Americans are not--"contented to rest in ignorance and wretchedness, to dig up gold and silver for [whites]" (52). Yet even as the story works to convert into laughter the fears that Walker's Appeal had provoked, the conclusion (much like the introduction) raises questions about Jupiter. When two skeletons are unearthed along with the treasure, Legrand conjectures aloud that, clearly, Captain Kidd "must have had assistance in the labor. But this labor concluded, he may have thought it expedient to remove all participants in his secret. Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen--who shall tell?" (348). While the narrator presumably escapes the death that this conclusion seems to foreshadow, we must wonder about Jupiter's future. Whereas Legrand, riches in hand, can return to New Orleans, Jupiter, due to Louisiana's manumission codes brought about by Walker's Appeal, likely cannot. Legrand can restore his position, but he can neither reclaim his slave nor return to New Orleans with his valet.
In 1829 David Walker predicted--and called for--a future in which slaves and free blacks would work together to strike for freedom. In 1843 Poe answered with a vision of the South's future that seeks to amuse readers with a humor rooted in nostalgia for race relations threatened by intensifying sectional tensions over slavery. "The Gold-Bug" thus offers a future South in which the racial hierarchy remains in place, even if slavery does not---a South in which free blacks dig for gold for their white (as good as) masters. Even as the story attempts to bury anxious uncertainty about freedmen in humor, the eerie ending, including the conspicuous omission of the fate of the free black, casts an ominous shadow over this future South, signaling to readers that the vision it offers is rooted in racial fantasy.
Poe has been identified as central to ongoing reconsiderations of how antebellum white writers took up matters of race and slavery. To apprehend the ways that Poe and other white antebellum authors engage these issues calls for approaches that move beyond the cul-de-sac conclusion of authorial anxiety. Situating their texts within the period's print culture can provide insights that not only move beyond an individualized racial psychology but also challenge received wisdom. As Goddu articulates, antebellum American literary scholarship in general and Poe scholarship in particular have perpetuated "a misreading of the cross-fertilization of pro- and anti-slavery discourse and the availability of anti-slavery pamphlets in the South in the 1830s" (16). To be sure, the meaning and significance of Poe's deployment of a literary convention alters when situated within a local history--nationally circulated--and alongside the black-authored text at its center. "The Gold-Bug" suggests that Poe's literary engagement with abolitionist print was more substantial than we have tended to assume.
I wish to thank those who have commented on this article in its various stages: Michael Elliott, Barbara Ladd, Mark Sanders, Monique Allewaert, Bert Emerson, Sonya Fritz, and Isiah Lavender. Generous fellowships from the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia enabled me to conduct the necessary archival research. A Dissertation Completion Fellowship at Emory University's Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry provided time and resources for which I am grateful.
Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. 1943. New York: International, 1993.
"The Bandit Taken!" Vermont Gazette 22 Nov. 1831. America's Historical Newspapers. Web. 10 July 2013.
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Brown, William Wells, ed. The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1848.
--. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. 1853. Ed. M. Giulia Fabi. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Cassuto, Leonard. The Inhuman Race: The Racial Grotesque in American Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. 1823. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Crockett, Hasan. "The Incendiary Pamphlet: David Walker's Appeal in Georgia." Journal of Negro History 86.3 (2001): 305-18. JSTOR. Web. 8 Jan. 2011.
Eaton, Clement. "A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South." Journal of Southern History 2.3 (1936): 323-34. JSTOR. Web. 8 January 2011.
"The First Colored Convention." Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830-1864. Ed. Howard Holman Bell. New York: Arno P, 1969. N. pag.
Frothingham, O. B. "Colonization." Platform of the American Anti-Slavery Society and Its Auxiliaries. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1855.
Garrison, William Lloyd. Thoughts on African Colonization; or an Impartial Exhibition of the Doctrines, Principles and Purposes of the American Colonization Society. Together with the Resolutions, Addresses and Remonstrances of the Free People of Color. Boston: Garrison and Knapp, 1832.
Goddu, Teresa A. "Rethinking Race and Slavery in Poe Studies." Poe Studies 33 (2000): 15-18.
Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Lnsurrection in Southampton, Va. Baltimore: T. R. Gray, 1831. Documenting the American South. 1999. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Nat Turner's Insurrection." The Atlantic Monthly 8.46 (1861): 173- 87.
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Kaplan, Sidney. "Poe's Pym: An Introduction to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. " American Studies in Black and White: Selected Essays, 1949-1989. Ed. Allan D. Austin. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1991. 127-43.
Kennedy, Lionel H., and Thomas Parker. An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection in the State of South Carolina. Charleston: James R. Schenck, 1822.
"Laws of Ohio--Free Blacks." Niles' Weekly Register 17 Apr. 1830. American Periodicals Series. Web. 12 June 2012.
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Mott, A. Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Color. New York: Mahlon Day, 1826. Documenting the American South. 2001. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 2 Feb. 2013.
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University of Central Arkansas
(1) Describing "The Gold-Bug" as offering a "beatific vision of slavery," Leonard Cassuto describes Jupiter as "a typical Sambo: a laughing and japing comic figure whose doglike devotion is matched only by his stupidity" (160). See Joseph Boskin's Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester for a similar description (96-97).
(2) Clement Eaton's "A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South" tracks the Appeal's movement in Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Peter P. Hinks's To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance includes attention to the pamphlet's appearance in Louisiana.
(3) See Eaton. See also Hasan Crockett's "The Incendiary Pamphlet." Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina passed laws against seditious literature; Virginia considered but did not pass this type of legislation.
(4) Five articles reporting on the Appeal appeared in the Richmond Enquirer during the first three months of 1830: January 28 ("The Pamphlet"), February 18 ("Virginia Legislature" and "Virginia Legislature, House of Delegates"), February 23, and March 26.
(5) On January 8, 1830, the Richmond Daily Whig criticized the secrecy marking the meeting of the General Assembly (Hinks 125). This is the newspaper, moreover, that within the next two weeks--on January 19, 21, and 23--would publish advertisements for Poe's recently published Tamerlane and Other Poems, advertisements probably supplied by Poe. See Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson's The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849.
(6) The articles ran on August 24 ("Rumored Insurrection") and September 6 ("Walker's Pamphlet").
(7) Founded in 1816, the ACS launched a quarterly, The African Repository and Colonial Journal, in 1825, giving the idea of African colonization more visibility.
(8) An article from the Niles' Weekly Register calls attention to the harshness of the law: "Some copies of the pamphlet, published at Boston by the colored dealer in old clothes, have been discovered, tending to increase the public anxiety. A very severe law concerning free persons of color has just been passed. All who arrived since 1825 are to be expelled" ("Louisiana" [24 Apr. 1830]).
(9) See, for example, Cooper's The Pioneers (1823) and Simms's Woodcraft (1854). In The Pioneers, Agamemnon belongs to Judge Temple, but having been hired out to another man, he has two masters and is loyal to both: "when any dispute between his lawful and his real master occurred, the black felt too much deference for both to express any opinion" (55).
(10) Mott includes a footnote with "The Good Master and the Faithful Slave," explaining that it is translated from a French source, Nicolas Wanostrocht's Recueil choisi de traits historiques et de contes moraux: avec la signification des mots en anglois au bas de chaque page (1786). For an overview of eighteenth-century depictions of loyal slaves in print, see George Boulukos's The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture.
(11)"Laws that impinged on free blacks were not limited to the South. Ohio's so-called "Black Laws," dating back to 1804, began to be more stringently enforced in 1829 (prior to Walker's Appeal) and resulted in an exodus of African Americans from Ohio to Canada. See "Laws of Ohio--Free Blacks" and James T. Campbell's Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. Walker also comments on efforts in Ohio to rid the state of free blacks (64-65).
(12) The speech appeared, for example, in the Richmond Inquirer (14 February 1832).
(13) Other anti-colonization texts staking their critiques on the issue of consent would persist well into the 1840s and 1850s. See, for example, O. B. Frothingham's "Colonization" (1855). See also William Wells Brown's "Colonization Song," which identifies "consent" as "extorted by force." In 1859, the Anglo-African Magazine ran "The First Colored Convention," which covers the history of the first National Negro Convention and refers to the years 1829-1830 as marked by "severe laws and brutal conduct of the fermenters of colonization in Virginia and Maryland. In some districts of these States, the disguised whites would enter the houses of free colored men at night, and take them out and give them from thirty to fifty lashes, to get them to consent to go to Liberia."
(14) For insight into Poe's statements on African colonization printed in the Southern Literary Messenger, see Whalen (Edgar Allan Poe 129-30).
(15) Walker underscores the tenuousness of the free black's status: "If any of you wish to know how FREE you are, let one of you start and go through the southern and western States of this country, and unless you travel as a slave to a white man ... or have your free papers, (which if you are not careful they will get them from you)," the traveler risks being abducted and sold into slavery (28).
(16) If there is a longer history of American works of fiction that rely on the lore of Captain Kidd's buried treasure as a plot device, I argue that it is after Walker's notorious publication that works of fiction foregrounding the role of black servants in quests to strike gold take on a new resonance. Liliane Weissberg identifies the common element of questing for Captain Kidd's buried treasure shared among Washington Irving's Tales of a Traveler (1824), Bird's Sheppard Lee, and Poe's "The Gold-Bug."
(17) The history of Sullivan's Island, as Weissberg explains, includes a short-lived, though significant, slave insurrection in which about five hundred slaves grouped together on the island and took over the local pest house, hoping to earn their freedom by fighting for the British. Many escaped to England (135).
(18) The article, "To Our Northern Brethren," reports the following: "Besides the instruments which many of them possessed as mechanics, villains were engaged in manufacturing arms; several pike-handles were discovered."
(19) See, for example, the 1831 article published in the Vermont Gazette, "The Bandit Taken!"
(20) William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), a novel appearing after Poe's death, includes direct allusions to Nat Turner's revolt. It directly identifies one of Turner's (fictive) associates, a marooned slave named Picquilo, as carrying a "sword, made from the blade of a scythe" (180). Thomas Wentworth Higginson's article "Nat Turner's Insurrection," published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, describes Turner and company as armed with scythes: "The troop [of insurgents] increased from house to house,--first to fifteen, then to forty, then to sixty. Some were armed with muskets, some with axes, some with scythes; some came on their masters' horses" (176).
(21) Herbert Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts alerted me to the article (328).
(22) Bolling's point is that Garrison and Walker belong to the category of incendiaries, whereas Virginia statesmen who seek "free and manly discussion of a subject, by freemen, the representatives of freemen, addressed to freemen" should not be censured (8).
(23) Walker not only reminds readers that African Americans are great in number and that they are adept fighters, but also lends his argument the weight of historical precedent by pointing to the Haitian revolution (63). Even more, he assures readers that God will provide a "Hannibal" to lead black resistance in the US (23).
(24) See Kaplan for another example.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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