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Book Review

History's True 'Beloved' Survives as the Ugliest Tale From an Ugly Era

November 17, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MODERN MEDEA

A Family Story of Slavery and

Child-Murder From the Old South

by Steven Weisenburger

Hill & Wang

$25, 352 pages

*

On a cold night in January 1856, the Garner family-- 22-year-old Margaret, her husband, Robert, Robert's parents and Margaret's four young children--"attempted to steal their selves." The Garners were slaves, and in escaping from their northern Kentucky plantations into neighboring Cincinnati, they set in motion a series of dramatic and tragic events that, Steven Weisenburger contends, "in its own epoch . . . became the most significant and controversial of all the antebellum fugitive slave stories."

Though Weisenburger never exactly proves this (nor many of his other contentions), he tells an undeniably fascinating story in "Modern Medea." For shortly after their escape, when the Garners found themselves on the verge of certain capture, Margaret decapitated her 2-year-old daughter--and later calmly stated that she had intended to kill her other children too, rather than see them returned to slavery. It was, Weisenburger writes, an act of "absolute singularity" in the annals of U.S. slave history.

Margaret's case electrified the country, and raised a host of moral, political and legal questions. "The ensuing public opinion battle raged for months, as Margaret Garner's story was told in churches and rented theaters by sympathetic preachers and outraged abolitionists," Weisenburger writes. "To them, no case more incisively revealed the pathology of slavery, and no deeds better symbolized the slave's tragic heroism. To proslavery writers, her deeds demonstrated that slaves were subhuman."

Weisenburger paints a detailed portrait of an already highly volatile Cincinnati, "a border city in the literal and the metaphorical sense." This was a patchwork town that included free blacks (many of whom were fugitives), armed Irish militias, Underground Railroad activists and radical German immigrants. "Cincinnati was a Northern border city divided in two, armed to the teeth, at times even battling in the streets over slavery. Its citizens had already pressed beyond just acknowledging the possibility of disunion. . . . [T]he Garner case was their trumpet call to arms." Mobs circulated outside the courthouse, while spectators inside the jam-packed courtroom often erupted into raucous hisses and cheers.

"Modern Medea" is full of stirring details, such as abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone's defense of her "afflicted sister" Margaret's humanity: "God gave this woman a love of liberty, and she has a soul worthy of the gift." There are outrageous notes too, such as a proslavery lawyer arguing that Margaret's child-murder was a "fancy matter"--that is, a minor point--that the court should ignore in favor of simply declaring Margaret a fugitive and remanding her to slavery. (This was, essentially, the argument that prevailed; Margaret was not deemed human enough to be tried for murder.)

Weisenburger argues persuasively that Margaret's owner may well have been the father of at least her two youngest children--including the one she killed--both of whom observers described as extremely light-skinned. (Margaret was a mulatto.) But many other parts of this book are far less convincing; time and again, Weisenburger drifts into unsubstantiated speculations. Some are simply gratuitous, as when he prints the lyrics of a spiritual that the Garners may--or then again, may not--have sung. Some are more pernicious, as when he creates fictional tableaux that should have no place in a work of history ("The girl squinted into those dancing lights toward the chuff-chuff of a side-wheel ferryboat"). Worst of all are his invasions of Margaret's psyche: "Margaret was learning her parents' anger by heart"; "[t]hese doubts and fears kept Margaret company"; "oppression never froze her soul in despair." "Medea" is liberally sprinkled with assertions of this ilk.

This is especially vexing because Weisenburger frequently attacks Garner's contemporaries for turning her into an icon and negating her individuality. In the works of genteel white abolitionists, he charges, "[t]he slave mother's anguish and her infanticide remain[ed] unknowable phenomena." Yet Weisenburger too fails to illuminate the specific Margaret Garner--an illiterate woman who left no records and made few public statements. Nor does he understand, or at least consider, that acknowledging the mystery of another person's suffering can be a form of respect, and that specious presumptions of knowledge such as his may be dehumanizing.

Publicity materials for "Modern Medea" are not shy about revealing that it is the true story upon which Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved" (and, of course, the subsequent Oprah Winfrey film) were based. Weisenburger's narrative is always compelling, and there is much to be learned about the antebellum period here. But one suspects that had it not been for Morrison's novel, "Modern Medea" would have been a historical-journal article, not a full-length book. "[T]he historical archive revealed unsuspected and complicated riches," Weisenburger writes. Perhaps, but not quite enough of them.

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