Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 19, 2013

Reading Slave-Owners

In a recent post on her blog, Clarissa links to this post, which posits the thesis, “To be a great writer you nearly have to have lead an interesting life.” Clarissa then questions the thesis by reviewing the lives of some authors (such as Jane Austen) who did not lead what most would consider exciting or interesting lives but who nevertheless produced great, enduring, and beloved works of literature.

Clarissa then writes:

The reason why I’m getting so hung up on the linked post is that I just discovered that the Russian poet Lermontov owned two slaves. To me it means that I will not be reading this particular poet aloud to Eric. And I really liked his poetry. But now it’s all spoiled for me.

It’s her decision, of course, what to read to her child. But that passage started me thinking: if we avoid all literature or writing by slave-owners, how much are we chucking?

The first thing that occurred to me was that most classical Greek and Roman literature is gone. Herodotos, Thucydides, Xenophon; Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides; Plato and Aristotle — I suspect, but cannot prove, that we would have to throw out all of these under such a rule. Horace, the Roman poet, was the son of a freed slave (a freedman), but that did not stop him from owning ten slaves himself. Vergil and Catullus are both almost certainly gone, as are both Plinys and Ovid. Julius Caesar was not simply a slave-owner but a military conqueror who enslaved thousands of people. Cicero, of course, is out. Marcus Aurelius. The historian Arrian and the biographer Plutarch, too. And many others.

Thomas Jefferson is out, as is George Washington. Lewis and Clark. Robert E. Lee. Ben Franklin owned some seven slaves before freeing them in 1770.

The Federalist Papers are not signed, but historians generally can tell (to a reasonable degree of certainty) which issues were written by James Madison (a slave-owner), which by Alexander Hamilton (not a slave-owner as far as I know), and which by John Jay (who was at one time a slave-owner but who later was in fact instrumental, as governor, in orchestrating the gradual abolition of slavery in New York).

Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and the like are not generally considered literary authors, though; we don’t “read” them in the same way that we read Mark Twain or Henry David Thoreau.

Mary Chestnut is out. I’m not sure about the poet Sidney Lanier.

Leo Tolstoy had serfs on his family estate in Russia. Tsar Alexander II technically emancipated Russia’s serfs in 1861, when Tolstoy was 33.

So how far should one carry such a rule?



  1. ““To be a great writer you nearly have to have lead an interesting life.”

    My suspicion is the opposite: nearly an inverse relationship between the interest of the life and that of the writing. Duller books have I seldom read than biographies of Wordsworth and Joyce. Whereas minor figures like Millay are fun to read about. Even Byron, whose life is sufficiently lurid to make for a good bio, isn’t really on the top rung of literary greatness.

    As for owning slaves, why stop there? Did the author punch his spouse? Screw underaged prostitutes? Drink “lite” beer?

  2. My estimation of Faulkner would certainly suffer were I to discover that he drank lite beer. I do not think that there is much danger of that, however.

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