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Appropriating Law in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred

Laura H. Korobkin
Nineteenth-Century Literature
Vol. 62, No. 3 (December 2007), pp. 380-406
DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2007.62.3.380
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncl.2007.62.3.380
Page Count: 27
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Appropriating Law in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred
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Abstract

This essay investigates Harriet Beecher Stowe's interpolation of State v. Mann, a harsh 1829 North Carolina proslavery decision, into her 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The essay argues that Stowe's use of State v. Mann continues a conversation about slavery that had been carried on through its text for many years in abolitionist writings. Bringing State v. Mann's circulation history into view shows Stowe engaging the antislavery establishment as well as the legal system, borrowing and imitating its techniques for handling proslavery materials. If her novel is infiltrated and structured by the many legal writings that it assimilates, its fictive world in turn infiltrates, interprets, and alters the significance of the writings she employs, so that proslavery legal writings are made to testify strongly against the slave system that they originally worked to maintain and enforce. Stowe's hybrid text dominates the law while smoothly assimilating it into an interpretive fictive context. Simultaneously, Stowe's typographical cues remind readers of State v. Mann's ongoing, destructive extratextual legal existence. By linking fictive context to legal content, Stowe's novel suggests that slave law must be read and interpreted as a unit that includes the individual suffering it imposes. Misreading State v. Mann as revealing its author's belief in the immorality of slavery, Stowe constructs a fictional judge who upholds slave law despite his personal beliefs. By absorbing, imitating, and besting the strategies and the reach of both legal and abolitionist writings, Dred implicitly stakes a claim for the superior power of political fiction to act in the world.

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