Uncle Bacchus

In 1852 Mary Henderson Eastman wrote Aunt Phillis’s Cabin as a response to the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. According to Wikipedia:

The story is set in unnamed rural town in Virginia, which is frequented by several plantation owners living around it. The town relies on trade from the cotton plantations for its economy. Understanding this, the plantation owners, in contrast to their neighbors in surrounding towns, have adopted a benign approach toward their slaves to keep them peaceful and assure the safety of the town. Several characters in and around the town are introduced throughout the story, demonstrating how this process works and the delicate balance of such a process in action.

In contrast to this is Aunt Phillis’ husband, who despite his kindly exterior seethes with rage at his unfortunate condition, turning to alcohol to combat his feelings of frustration and hopelessness – hence his name, Uncle Bacchus. This was an interesting choice on Eastman’s part, as devotees of Dionysos were behind several slave revolts in ancient Rome:

Dionysus was left to the powerless of Italy and they embraced him. In 185-184, the slave shepherds of Apulia – the heel of the Italian “boot” – revolted and sources hint they claimed Dionysus as their patron. Between 135 and 101 B.C., two slave revolts in Sicily and one slave revolt in western Anatolia all invoked Dionysus. The god appeared again in the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies known as the Social War (91-88 B.C.): rebel coins showed Bacchus as a symbol of liberation. (Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War pgs 34-35)

The most famous of these was led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus and his wife, a Bacchic prophetess:

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. This woman shared in his escape and was then living with him. (Plutarch, Life of Crassus 9.3)

Mary Henderson Eastman’s novel sold 20,000–30,000 copies, far less than Stowe’s novel but still a strong commercial success and bestseller by the standards of the day.

Here are some selections from the novel:

“Here comes Uncle Bacchus now, Mr. Barbour,” said Alice; “do look at him walk. Is he not a curiosity? He has as much pretension in his manner as if he were really doing us a favor in paying us a visit.”

“The old scamp,” said Mr. Barbour, “he has a frolic in view; he wants to go off to-morrow either to a campmeeting, or a barbecue. He looks as if he were hooked together, and could be taken apart limb by limb.”

Bacchus had commenced bowing some time before he reached the piazza, but on ascending the steps he made a particularly low bow to his master, and then in the same manner, though with much less reverence, paid his respects to the others.

“Well, Bacchus?” said Mr. Weston.

“How is yer health dis evenin, master? You aint been so well latterly. We’ll soon have green corn though, and that helps dispepsy wonderful.”

“It may be good for dyspepsia, Bacchus,” said Mr. Weston, “but it sometimes gives old people cholera morbus, when they eat it raw; so I advise you to remember last year’s experience, and roast it before you eat it.”

“I shall, indeed,” replied Bacchus; “’twas an awful time I had last summer. My blessed grief! but I thought my time was done come. But de Lord was mighty good to me, he brought me up again—Miss Janet’s physic done me more good though than any thing, only it put me to sleep, and I never slept so much in my born days.”

“You were always something of a sleeper, I am told, Bacchus,” said Cousin Janet; “though I have no doubt the laudanum had that effect; you must be more prudent; old people cannot take such liberties with themselves.”

“Lor, Miss Janet, I aint so mighty ole now; besure I aint no chicken nother; but thar’s Aunt Peggy; she’s what I call a raal ole nigger; she’s an African. Miss Alice, aint she never told you bout de time she seed an elerphant drink a river dry?”

“Yes,” said Alice, “but she dreamed that.”

“I am afraid to give you permission,” said Mr. Weston; “this habit of drinking, that is growing upon you, is a disgrace to your old age. You remember you were picked up and brought home in a cart from campmeeting this summer, and I am surprised that you should so soon ask a favor of me.”

“I feels mighty shamed o’ that, sir,” said Bacchus, “but I hope you will ‘scuse it. Niggers aint like white people, no how; they can’t ‘sist temptation. I’ve repented wid tears for dat business, and ‘twont happen agin, if it please the Lord not to lead me into temptation.”

“You led yourself into temptation,” said Mr. Weston; “you took pains to cross two or three fences, and to go round by Norris’s tavern, when, if you had chosen, you could have come home by the other road.”

“True as gospel, ma’am,” said Bacchus, “I don’t deny de furst word of it; the Lord forgive me for backsliding; but master’s mighty good to us, and if he’ll overlook that little misfortune of mine, it shan’t happen agin.”

“You call it a misfortune, do you, Bacchus?” said Mr. Barbour; “why, it seems to me such a great Christian as you are, would have given the right name to it, and called it a sin. I am told you are turned preacher?”

“No, sir,” said Bacchus, “I aint no preacher, I warn’t called to be; I leads in prayer sometimes, and in general I rises de tunes.”

“Well, I suppose I can’t refuse you,” said Mr. Weston; “but come home sober, or ask no more permissions.”

“God bless you, master; don’t be afeard: you’ll see you can trust me. I aint gwine to disgrace our family no more. I has to have a little change sometimes, for Miss Janet knows my wife keeps me mighty straight at home. She ‘lows me no privileges, and if I didn’t go off sometimes for a little fun, I shouldn’t have no health, nor sperrets nother.”

“You wouldn’t have any sperrits, that’s certain,” said Alice, laughing; “I should like to see a bottle of whisky in Aunt Phillis’s cabin.”

Bacchus laughed outright, infinitely overcome at the suggestion. “My blessed grief! Miss Alice,” said he, “she’d make me eat de bottle, chaw up all de glass, swaller it arter dat. I aint ever tried dat yet—best not to, I reckon. No, master, I intends to keep sober from this time forrurd, till young master comes back; den I shall git high, spite of Phillis, and ‘scuse me, sir, spite of de devil hisself. When is he comin, any how, sir?”

from Chapter I.

And oh! what a figure had Aunt Peggy; or rather, what a face. Which was the blacker, her eyes or her visage; or whiter, her eyeballs or her hair? The latter, unconfined by her bandanna handkerchief as she generally wore it, standing off from her head in masses, like snow. And who that had seen her, could forget that one tooth projecting over her thick underlip, and in constant motion as she talked.

“It’s no use, Mister Bacchus,” said she, addressing the old man, who looked rather the worse for wear, “it’s no use to be flinging yer imperence in my face. I’se worked my time; I’se cooked many a grand dinner, and eat ’em too. You’se a lazy wagabond yerself.”

“Peggy,” interposed Mr. Weston.

“A good-for-nothing, lazy wagabond, yerself,” continued Peggy, not noticing Mr. Weston, “you’se not worth de hommony you eats.”

“Does you hear that, master?” said Bacchus, appealing to Mr. Weston; “she’s such an old fool.”

“Hold your tongue, sir,” said Mr. Weston; while Mark, ready to strangle his fellow-servant for his impertinence, was endeavoring to drag him out of the room.

“Ha, ha,” said Peggy, “so much for Mr. Bacchus going to barbecues. A nice waiter he makes.”

“Do you not see me before you, Peggy?” said Mr. Weston, “and do you continue this disputing in my presence? If you were not so old, and had not been so faithful for many years, I would not excuse such conduct. You are very ungrateful, when you are so well cared for; and from this time forward, if you cannot be quiet and set a good example in the kitchen, do not come into it.”

“Don’t be afeard, master, I can stay in my own cabin. If I has been well treated, it’s no more den I desarves. I’se done nuff for you and yours, in my day; slaved myself for you and your father before you. De Lord above knows I dont want ter stay whar dat ole drunken nigger is, no how. Hand me my cane, dar, Nancy, I ain’t gwine to ‘trude my ‘siety on nobody.” And Peggy hobbled off, not without a most contemptuous look at Bacchus, who was making unsuccessful efforts to rise in compliment to his master.

“As for you, Bacchus,” said Mr. Weston, “never let this happen again. I will not allow you to wait at barbecues, in future.”

“Don’t say so, master, if you please; dat ox, if you could a smelled him roastin, and de whiskey-punch,” and Bacchus snapped his finger, as the only way of concluding the sentence to his own satisfaction.

“Take him off, Mark,” said Mr. Weston, “the drunken old rascal.”

“Master,” said Bacchus, pushing Mark off, “I don’t like de way you speak to me; t’aint ‘spectful.”

“Carry him off,” said Mr. Weston, again. “John, help Mark.”

“Be off wid yourselves, both of ye,” said Bacchus; “if ye don’t, I’ll give you de devil, afore I quits.”

“I’ll shut your mouth for you,” said Mark, “talking so before master; knock him over, John, and push him out.”

Bacchus was not so easily overcome. The god whose namesake he was, stood by him for a time. Suddenly the old fellow’s mood changed; with a patronizing smile he turned to Mr. Weston, and said, “Master, you must ‘scuse me: I aint well dis evening. I has the dyspepsy; my suggestion aint as good as common. I think dat ox was done too much.”

Mr. Weston could not restrain a smile at his grotesque appearance, and ridiculous language. Mark and John took advantage of the melting mood which had come over him, and led him off without difficulty. On leaving the kitchen, he went into a pious fit, and sung out

“When I can read my title clar.”

Mr. Weston heard him say, “Don’t, Mark; don’t squeeze an ole nigger so; do you ‘spose you’ll ever get to Heaven, if you got no more feelins than that?”

“I hope,” said Mr. Weston, addressing the other servants, “that you will all take warning by this scene. An honest and respectable servant like Bacchus, to degrade himself in this way—it gives me great pain to see it.” said he, addressing a son of Bacchus, who stood by the window

from Chapter III.

2 thoughts on “Uncle Bacchus

  1. what a terrible novel. The author is fucking delusional. I knew that when it was written, there was tremendous push back against Stowe’s novel, but I didn’t know about this book you excerpt here.

    That photo — the first time I saw it I was doing my undergrad work and it just leveled me. It brings home the devastation of slavery like nothing else. If I’m not mistaken, that photo and the man whom it depicts (by sharing his experience) were motivating factors in the abolitionist movement.

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