“Vegetable monsters”: (Un)Natural Militancy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp is a darker follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Between 1852 and 1856, the interval between the publications of the two novels, tensions over slavery only continued to mount. Stowe uses the imagery of the swamp to suggest how Dred’s mysticism is simultaneously natural and unnatural. For Stowe, the swamp is, paradoxically, a site of serene refuge and a metaphor for Dred’s tangled and twisted mind. Dred is a microcosm of the swamp, which is a grotesque space for Stowe, simultaneously attractive and repulsive in its wildness. Dred embodies the dread of the swamp: like the swamp’s strange foliage, he has grown into an eerie form. The swamp is a place of fertility, refuge, and religious conversion, on the one hand, and mysticism, violence, and insanity, on the other.
Stowe’s portrayal of Dred as akin to the swamp’s “vegetable monsters” suggests that black people must be properly civilized. In its wildness, the swamp is an image of the black psyche’s supposed propensity toward madness, while in its glimpses of divine beauty the swamp reflects the fact that African Americans are created in the image of God. While Dred, who seems beyond cultivation, dies in the swamp, the other black characters escape to the more civilized locales of Canada and New York. Stowe comes close to perceiving Fanon’s insight that social conditions affect the psychological development of the oppressed.