John Pendleton Kennedy and Washington Irving on slavery encountered in the Shenandoah

Posted on August 3, 2015 by

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While I continue to work on that list of auxiliaries within the American Colonization Society… some observations from another item of interest.

Washington Irving

Washington Irving

It might come as a surprise to some that the author of some of America’s original classics journeyed to the Shenandoah Valley (on more than one occasion, in fact) in the 1850s. While I’m going to limit today’s scope of study to Irving and his encounters with slaves in the Valley, I’ll have to give more details about those visits on another day.

Anyway, Irving’s visit to the Shenandoah is documented in The Life and Letters of Washington Irving (written by his nephew, Pierre Irving), but… in that visit (which is documented in volume 4), not once did Pierre make reference to the words “slave”, “slaves”, “slavery”, or “servants”. I believe this might suggest relevance to a theory held by one of Irving’s more contemporary biographers (Brian Jay Jones), that he [Irving] preferred to keep his distance from the topic as not to alienate any readers.

He was never an outspoken abolitionist – such a hot topic inevitably led to the kinds of arguments in which he was loath to engage – yet his natural tendency was to side with the oppressed. One afternoon, as he and Ellsworth gathered firewood during a stop in Wabash, Irving struck up a conversation with a slave woman, and asked her about her children. “As the tears started in her eyes,” Irving recorded in his journal, “she got up [and] crossed the hut – ‘I am not allowed to live with them – they are up at the plantation.'” Such wrenching true stories turned his stomach, yet Washington Irving was no James Fenimore Cooper; he never risked his reputation espousing controversial political views. His opinions remained his own. [Washington Irving: An American Original, 2008, p. 301]

A quick search in Pierre Irving’s collection of letters doesn’t appear to reveal the words written by Irving in his journal. I wonder, therefore, if he conveyed this attitude to his nephew, and when compiling the biographical sketch (after Washington Irving’s death), the nephew adhered to his uncle’s philosophy.

Fortunately, another writer… and friend… John Pendleton Kennedy, helped to fill in the gap.

When visiting “Audley“, in Clarke County, Virginia, in June 1853, Kennedy noted:

Irving is curious to see the negro establishment. All the blacks he has seen in this region seem to be so well off and so entirely contented, that he is continually laughing at Mrs. Beecher Stowe’s sentimental griefs over Uncle Tom. After dinner he and I stroll to the stable, where there are a few cabins to be seen with families of negroes. One old fellow named George, I believe, is seen slowly getting over a fence. He is infirm with age and very slow in his motion. He has some coopers’ tools in his hand, and a hoop. As he comes near us, I stop him, and ask his name, “George, massa.” – “What do you do, George?” – “I am a cooper; I am gwine to hoop a barl now.” He is very well clothed, and has a cheerful air, though showing much infirmity, which he says is “rheumatiz.” “Are you married, George?” – “Yes, I’se had three wives in my time.” – “How many children?” – “Seven, if I knowed where they war. But not any by my wife now. I am alone now.” After some little bragging about his skill in coopering in times past, he leaves us and hobbles on to his work. Irving and I remained sitting on a log in the yard, as George limped away. Irving looking after him with a comic smile, says to me, “That’s an Uncle Tom. What a melancholy

Bushrod Washington

Bushrod Washington

story! So infirm – doubtless the effects of severe scourging, – then that expression, – so full of his mournful history – ‘I am alone now,’ laying a heavy, sad emphasis on alone, and looking very pathetic. And ‘I have seven children, if I knew where they war.’ Poor old victim of oppression! What a volume Mrs. Stowe would get out of George!” After we had amused ourselves in making up some items of melancholy matter out of George’s short interview, and imagining the framework of a dismal tale on this foundation, we returned to the house to laugh over the story. George is an old servant of the family, who once belonged to Judge Bushrod Washington*, – is a privileged magnate among the negroes, and spends his time, now and then, in the exercise of his old craft, so far as the supply of a hoop to a barrel will allow, and living a loitering life between his cabin, where his old wife takes good care of him, and the stable-yard in looking after the poultry and doing such jobs as an old fellow of seventy might attempt.”

(*If you happened to take time to access that link about Bushrod Washington… you saw that, yes, he was a founding member and first president of the American Colonization Society).

Irving (according to Kennedy) couldn’t see anything comparable to that described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin… until he talked to George. Also, reading what little there is, I take it that Irving and Kennedy didn’t make fun of George, but of the imagined tale, behind George, the two writers generated in conversation, perhaps finding (as curious as that might seem to us) humor in their own creation.

Just a bit of “forgotten” Shenandoah Valley history that might be unfamiliar to some readers.