by wjw on March 24, 2016

300px-SlaveDanceand_MusicSo I was talking to an acquaintance whose family hails from Tennessee.  He said, “In my family we used to be embarrassed that the Yankees came and took away our plantation.  But now what’s embarrassing is that we had a plantation in the first place.”

Which is enlightened self-knowledge, if you ask me.

And which further brings to mind a question I asked at a panel at Boskone, a month ago.  We were talking about protagonists, I think, and who or what could be heroes, and I asked, “Can you have a Southern slaveholder as a protagonist any longer, knowing what we now know about slavery?  Wouldn’t a reader think, ‘Oh!  A rapist!  And if he’s not, his friends certainly are.'”

Thirty years ago it was certainly possibly to have a plantation owner as a protagonist— in fact I once planned it myself, and would have written that story if my Privateers and Gentlemen series hadn’t been brought to a premature end.  I had gone to some length, at the end of Cat Island, to explain why one branch of my fictional Markham family had ended up in Mississippi, just so that I could eventually have point-of-view characters on both sides of the Civil War.

Of course I wasn’t going to make my plantation owner right in his defense of slavery.  I don’t think anyone’s made that argument in fiction for a very long time.  But it was still possible to have the character be wrong, and still be honorable and honest in defense of his views.

(My character was going to be a colossal egoist who viewed himself as enlightened.  He was the sort of slaveowner who viewed the slaves as extended family, and would never order them  to do dangerous work— of course he’d hire an Irish immigrant for that!)

I’m not sure that sort of protagonist is possible any longer, any more than you can have a protagonist be an SS camp commandant or an al Qaeda terrorist.  Sure, you can have them be the central character in your book, to dissect the alien mindset or whatever, but in order to be a protagonist, the character has to protag.  He’s got to engage the reader’s sympathy somehow, and I wonder how much sympathy a slaveowner can generate.

However, I have to ask myself this: does this mean George Washington isn’t a hero anymore? Or Jefferson, Madison, Light-Horse Harry Lee?  Benjamin Franklin, who speculated in slaves but wasn’t as invested in the system as a planter?

41h0pJXsPnLComplex characters are a sine qua non of serious fiction, and you can’t say that these characters, and their historical circumstances, were not complex.  Washington and Jefferson thought very seriously about slavery and its conditions.  Washington was a strict master, apparently, very much in the style of a military man— though he tried also to be humane, and wouldn’t sell a slave without his permission.  Jefferson obsessively kept records about his slaves, the way he kept records about everything else, but he found personal contact with his human property distressing, and kept his property at bay by surrounding himself with the Hemings family, who were at once his in-laws, children, and property.

Neither were able to make slavery work for them, and came to different conclusions.  Washington freed all the slaves he personally owned, albeit after he’d died, while Jefferson kept spending lavishly, died terribly in debt, and let his descendants bear the consequences.  And his slaves, who probably had their families broken up as they were sold to pay the great man’s debts.

So there is your plausible protagonist, I think.  Someone who is all too aware of the system’s evils, but is nevertheless trapped in his world and time.  Joseph Davis, the older brother of the Confederate president, might serve as one model for this kind of character: he was a convert to socialism, and tried to run his 5000-acre plantation as a kind of model commune— and after the Civil War, sold the whole shebang to Benjamin Montgomery, one of his freed slaves.  (Mind you, Montgomery was freed by the Union Army, not by Joseph.)

Being a member of the planter class was something you were born into.  That wasn’t your fault; but of course it might be your fault if you remained in the planter class and participated in its abuses.  Or if you weren’t born into it, but aspired to it, or served it in some particularly vicious way— as a slave-dealer, for example.

But of course it wasn’t just American Southerners who owned slaves.  The planters chose as their models the heroes of the classical age: Julius Caesar, Cato, Pericles, Cicero, and just about every other prominent person well into the Middle Ages (after which they didn’t have slaves, but merely serfs).  Slaves in the ancient world were given more opportunities for freedom than African slaves in the States, and they were probably spared a good deal of the racism; but when all was said and done, slavery in the ancient world could get as bad as slavery anywhere.  Plus there was a chance, depending on where you lived, of being turned into a eunuch.

If a Southern slaveholder can’t be a protagonist, what about these guys?  Caesar was a hero to most of Rome, but he killed a million Gauls and enslaved another million or more.  Compared to all that, Andrew Jackson was a piker.  There was a reason Spartacus and the slaves rose in revolt.

In the ancient world, of course, there were no alternatives.  There were no leagues for abolition in Athens or Babylon, there were no free states for slaves to run to; and while there were liberal politicians like Caesar or Pericles, they were interested in promoting the interests of middle-class slave-owning citizens, not slaves.  Literacy and the knowledge it brought was the possession of a very small class, and they were going to run things no matter what.

Of course part of the attraction of writing about the ancient world is all the elevated conversation mixed with the extreme cruelty, the enlightened proconsul who fights the forces of reaction back home, and crucifies his foreign enemies on a battlefield.  That’s a character worthy of a great book (and probably a thousand mediocre ones).

But can you write a slave-owning protagonist and not deal in some way with the system that produced both him and the servants who bathe him, dress him, and take care of his sexual needs?  I’m thinking not.

Of course the ancient world also has the advantage of distance.  We don’t have people in our present muttering that things would be a lot better if we could get back to the days of Cato the Elder, whereas nostalgia for the Lost Cause is still strong in certain quarters of the U.S.

We know more than we did, because we’re not obliged to be discreet anymore, and the stories that I (for one) grew up with are now shown to be untrue, or at least incomplete.  I can’t write about the same kind of protagonists that I could write about thirty years ago.

Is that enlightened self-knowledge?  Maybe not, but at least it means I’ve learned a thing or two.

Foxessa March 24, 2016 at 4:40 pm

What did the Boskone panel discussion conclude?

Love, C.

wjw March 24, 2016 at 8:40 pm

I seem to remember that everyone both on the panel and the audience looked uncomfortable for a moment, and then the discussion moved elsewhere.

John Appel March 24, 2016 at 10:03 pm

Seeing your reference to the SS camp commander – did you not catch the controversy in romance writing circles last year? The book in question, “For Such a Time”, featured a romance between the commander of Theresienstadt and “blonde and blue-eyed” Jewess. Whom he saves by converting to Christianity.

Ralf T. Dog March 24, 2016 at 10:05 pm

How about a slave owner that starts out as nasty as they come, has a series of events that change his perspective, and eventually chooses to work as a spy for the Union. Perhaps, he becomes part of the underground railroad, passing intelligence along with the escaped slaves he helps. His slaves would not know, he was working for the North. I can picture him capturing one of his escaped slaves, “Here is some money, steal my horse and ride in that direction as long as you can. You should be safe by morning. Now, GO!”

he would need to save the cat, early in the book.

Foxessa March 24, 2016 at 11:12 pm

Walter — thanks for that. It’s kinda what I would have thought . . . .

An interesting book I’ve been boogying with lately is General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. This military historian worked purely with the Army of Northern Virginia. He worked hard at at his stats, laid out the proportions of those who enrolled early in this army. Those stats show just how many of the Army of Northern Virginia are deeply involved in the benefits of slavery. Even if they own now themselves, their fathers do, their uncles do , their blahblahsblahs do. The stats are fairly astonishing and dem0lish a lot of arguments on the other side that most of the people fighting in the secessionist side had nothing to do with slavery.

I’ve always know that, of course, but his tables and stats make it very clear.

wjw March 25, 2016 at 12:24 am

So the planter class charged into the army at the start, then once the war wasn’t over by Christmas started drafting everyone else? Because that makes a good deal of sense, in view of the elections for secession delegates, etc., being fixed by the planters ahead of time. The only honest election was held in Georgia, where bad weather kept the rural population from the polls, the urban population being more strongly behind secession (This according to Alan Nevins, anyway.)

John, they do some odd stuff in category romance, but “For Such a Time” was weird even for that. Romance protagonists can even be rapists, though that’s handled more carefully than it used to be.

Ken Thomas March 25, 2016 at 12:28 am

My maternal grandfather was a helluva guy. He volunteered for the Army, and hit Omaha Beach on D-Day with the Big Red One. Ended up serving under Patton when they relieved the 101st at Bastogne. Saved the world from the fascists. Won a bunch of medals. Came back home, got married, raised a family. Active in his church and local service organizations. Did a lot of charity work.

The day before my parents were married, Grandpa pulled Dad aside and told him that Mom would make him a good wife, as long as he was willing to knock her around a bit once in awhile to keep her in line. Spare the rod, spoil the spouse, basically. To him hitting a woman with a closed fist was wrong because it was cowardly and weak, but slapping her was just one of those mildly untasteful things a man needs to do on occasion. Failing to do so would be irresponsible.

Does all that mean my grandfather was a horrible person? By current standards, sure – but he was also an accurate reflection of the standards of the world he grew up in. Could Grandpa be a good protagonist if this trait was known? I think he could, but it would be uncomfortable for us to write, and uncomfortable for others to read.

But let’s not get too judgemental about it. I fully expect that 200 years from now virtually everyone will be a vegetarian. As scientific study of the brain continues, I think more people will come to realize that consciousness isn’t binary. It’s not ‘you got it or you don’t’. There are levels, and animals possess different levels of it. I’m not a vegetarian and I expect most people reading this probably aren’t either, but our descendants will be wondering if we can really be considered the heroes of any good story considering that we gleefully consumed the flesh of our cousins on a daily basis.

Jim Janney March 25, 2016 at 2:01 pm

Nazis, rapists, vampires, zombies… pretty much anything goes in romance novels these days.

George MacDonald Fraser’s novel Flash for Freedom slips in a lot of fascinating detail about the slave trade. Even with all the risks involved, investors could expect a return of 30% to 40%, which helps explain why it was so hard to stop. Flashman is obviously not meant as a role model, but his flaws let him get in and out of a lot of interesting situations.

Jim Janney March 25, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Nazis, rapists, vampires, zombies… pretty much anything goes in romance novels these days.

George MacDonald Fraser’s Flash for Freedom slips in a lot of fascinating detail about the slave trade. Even with all the risks involved, investors could expect a return of 30% to 40%, which helps explain why it was so hard to stop. Flashman is obviously not meant as a role model, but his flaws let him get in and out of a lot of interesting situations.

Robert March 26, 2016 at 4:35 am

Octavia Butler’s KINDRED.

Howard Brazee March 26, 2016 at 8:43 am

I will expand this for people who are proud to ancestors who are royal. That surely means they have at least one ancestor who gained power by killing & conquering.

When writing stories that take place in other eras – either in the past or in the future, we are still writing in our times – to readers who live in our time. Sympathetic protagonists need to have some of our current values. I am uncomfortable when I read some casual racism of Shakespeare, Doyle, or Heyer, even when I like their works. Readers a century in the future will find some of our current values to be unacceptable. (Change isn’t slowing down)

Privateiron March 26, 2016 at 10:31 am

With respect to Jefferson and slavery, have you ever read about Kosciusko’s will? It made it to the Supreme Court. Short story: he left money to Jefferson to free and educate slaves. Not only did Jefferson not use it for that purpose, he did not even misuse it for other purposes. Just let it stand. When the money went into his estate, some of it was appropriated by others and eventually a lot of it was returned to Kosciusko’s heirs.

Foxessa March 27, 2016 at 8:26 pm

I certainly know about Kosciusko’s money; further there is some evidence that Jefferson borrowed some it, which wasn’t replaced.

What ended up with his aristo heirs didn’t go for anything but a lifestyle to which they were entitled, so to speak. In other words not a cent of that money was spent on anything that reflected Kosciusko’s own plans or beliefs.

Foxessa March 27, 2016 at 8:27 pm

P.S. — also quite a bit of the money went to the lawyers over years of legal wrangling both here and in Europe. Not so much left over for the relatives really, probably.

wjw March 28, 2016 at 12:31 am

I hadn’t heard of Kosciusko’s will. The story certainly illuminates an unflattering aspect of Jefferson’s character.

Ken’s grandfather reminds me of the tales of fathers who, presenting their daughters to their husbands, also presented the stick to beat her with. He would make a very interesting protagonist of a story, as a brave, able man of limited imagination, unable quite to rise above violence in his daily life.

Certainly I am not demanding perfection in my protagonists. I have written some very flawed characters, some of them violent, some of them my best creations. But when a character stands for a system that is not only violent and exploitative, but profoundly creepy, I think I would find it hard to sustain any degree of fascination. Either he’s oblivious to the human cost of his situation, or he’s aware of it to some degree; but the =author= can’t be less than aware. I don’t think it’s possible for the author to ignore the horror any longer, and that’s going to change the way the protagonist is presented.

Flashman is, of course, an anti-hero, but he wins us through his candor. He freely tells us that he’s a sneak, cad, and a coward, which disarms the reader; and the author always arranges a comeuppance for him by the end. Flashman wins in the end but achieves lots of morally satisfactory punishment along the way.

I’m sorry that Fraser never got a chance to write of Flashman in the Civil War, because his view of the pieties of both sides would be refreshing. Besides, there was that enticing remark that, while sneaking around the Confederate capital, he’d once had to convince Jefferson Davis that he’d come to fix the lightning rod.

Phil Koop March 28, 2016 at 5:08 am

I thought Malcolm McDowell made the perfect Flashman in Royal Flash, but obviously the film-going public did not agree with me.

Am I really the only person who can’t contemplate the proposition of an SS protagonist without being reminded of the classic Mitchell and Webb sketch Are We the Baddies? ( A protagonist who “awakes” from a guilty situation is an old cop-out; but in this case, a very funny one.

Privateiron March 30, 2016 at 10:24 pm

Fraser wrote the script for one of my favorite movies of all time: the Reed/York Three Musketeers. His books are in the singularity where my “to read” pile was last observed.

Stephen M. Stirling August 7, 2016 at 6:07 pm

Slavery was ubiquitous until quite recently. Trying to pretend that people in that context thought about it the way we do is a sign of mental constipation, and sort of contemptible.

You don’t — or you shouldn’t — read fiction to get yourself reflected back at you. You go to fiction, particularly F&SF or historical fiction, for people who are fundamentally DIFFERENT.

Stephen M. Stirling August 7, 2016 at 6:11 pm

And if you’re dealing with people before the Sentimental Revolution and the Enlightenment, you’re essentially dealing with a world without pity, where empathy was saved for friends and relations and everyone else was meat or threats. Slavery in the US wasn’t anything unusual in that context; it just lasted a bit longer.

Stephen M. Stirling August 7, 2016 at 6:23 pm

NB: about the American South.

You have to remember that most white southerners thought slavery was -right-. They thought it was a morally superior system.

About 25% of the white population belonged to slave-owning families — Colonel Bighouse, Mrs. Bighouse, the 8 Bighouse kids, and his widowed aunt and her three kids, and so forth.

In the states that seceded, the percentage was about 33%. In the Gulf States, it was nearly 50%.

Support for secession was directly proportional to the share of slaves in a county’s population, but it was strong everywhere outside the Appalachian mountains and a few swamp enclaves. All the parts of the Confederacy that were tied into the commercial economy were strongly pro-secession.

There were about 1 million white males of military age in the Confederacy (defining “military age” broadly). Of those, about 900,000 served in the Confederate Army and of those about a third died; probably more than half were killed, or wounded, or seriously ill with “camp fever” or the like at some point in the war.

The Confederacy wasn’t unanimous in support of secession, but it was close enough for government work. It kept fighting until it was beaten flat.

The Confederates didn’t lose the war, the Union won it, by systematically hammering the South until it couldn’t go on any more, and by a policy of deliberate frightfulness towards the civilian population. The war only ended when the South was a desolated wasteland full of cripples, orphans and widows.

Nobody fights to the last man, but the Confederates kept going as long as anyone does — and then spent the next 10 years in a guerrilla war, because, as the song “I Am A Good Ol’ Rebel” put it:

“I’m glad we fought the Yankees
I only wish we’d won
And I’m glad we killed so many
Afore the thing was done.”

wjw August 9, 2016 at 3:46 pm

Steve, my post wasn’t about whether you could write about people who held a different value system, or who supported exploitive systems like slavery, but about whether such people could be portrayed sympathetically. As heroes, if you like.

You have plenty of slave owners in your books, I see, but none of them are the good guys.

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