Maum Guinea (1861) Spotlight
About the Novel
Metta Victor’s Maum Guinea, and Her Plantation “Children”; or, Holiday-Week on a Louisiana Estate; A Slave Romance was “the novel most likely to be found in the backpacks of Union—and Confederate—soldiers and in the parlors and pockets of readers in both North America and Europe in the early days of the war” (Castagna). Marketed as a special holiday double-issue, the book runs just over two hundred pages and sold for twenty cents. Unusual, too, was the inclusion of an author’s introduction, claiming a truthful and politically-neutral representation of enslaved peoples.
The story centers on the courtships of Rose and Hyperion—an enslaved couple—and Virginia and Philip—a white planter couple from neighboring Louisiana plantations. Set during the week-long Christmas holiday when many slaves were given time “off” from their usual labors, the enslaved characters agree to take turns sharing stories of their lives. These first person accounts of slavery repeatedly describe violence, abuse, neglectful white fathers, the selling of children, and families separated. One woman’s story describes how these experiences led to her husband’s participation in Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, a movement that aspired to wipe out every white person in Northampton County, Virginia. Maum Guinea, the “mother” of the slave community, helps Rose and Hyperion escape when Rose is sold to be a wealthy man’s concubine. Although many critics describe Victor as an abolitionist and her book as an overtly abolitionist text, others have argued that the novel’s ending, with Rose and Hyperion happily married and enslaved, indicates a “schizophrenic generic identity—a proslavery/antislavery ‘romance of fact’” (Stokes 2001, 57).
Maum Guinea was first published by Beadle and Adams in Beadle's Dime Novels no. 33 on December 10, 1861. It appeared simulteanously in American Novels, the London edition of the series. The novel was reprinted twice, first in Beadle's Standard Library of Romance vol. 1 (1862) and again in Twenty Cent Novels no. 14 (1876).
- Most critics agree that Victor was an abolitionist and her novel is an abolitionist work, but her introduction seems to suggest otherwise. Why might Victor claim neutrality here? Is this really an abolitionist novel? Why or why not?
- Victor represents enslaved characters’ southern dialect differently than she writes the speech of her white southern characters. Why? What is the effect of this difference? Identify one example of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as represented in the novel and describe where and why it is used.
- Why might Victor choose to open her novel with two couples? What does she accomplish by including both an enslaved couple and a white Southern planter couple? What romantic aspirations do they share? What differences exist in these couples’ social circumstances?
- Discuss themes of home, mothers and motherhood, and slavery’s deformity of family affection in Chapters 3 and 8 especially. Teachers could also compare one or both of these chapters with excerpts from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Discuss threats to Rose’s sexual purity, a popular literary trope in this era known as the “tragic mulatta” character (especially in conjunction with Chapters 7 and 9). Rose’s situation could also be effectively compared with Harriet Jacob’s slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published the same year as Maum Guinea.
Abolition in Print
Nineteenth-century American abolitionist magazines, journals, and newspapers provided emotionally stirring anti-slavery content in an attempt to swell support for the political movement to end slavery. Abolitionists believed in the concept of “moral suasion,” that in convincing others that slavery was morally wrong, the practice would consequently end. But they underestimated the centrality of slavery to the economic structures of both the North and South. Moreover, abolitionists frequently disagreed about the goals and means of ending slavery. African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass were often frustrated with Northern abolitionists’ unwillingness to fully take on issues of racism and full citizenship for African Americans. Publishers also disagreed, finding each other too radical or too conservative and accommodating to white society.
Hold a group discussion about the differences in point of view among these magazines. Divide students into small groups that will act as editorial boards of new abolitionist magazines of the 1850s-1860s. Each group should name its publication and design an appropriate cover image. Illustrations may be included throughout the magazine. Each magazine should include the following contributions:
- A “Letter from the Editor” describing the magazine’s point of view and goals
- Three literary works from the period (poem, short story, speech, excerpt from a novel)
- A critical review of Metta Victor's Maum Guinea.
- Three abolitionist songs
- Three brief biographies of African American abolitionists, authors, or speakers
- From Slavery to Freedom: The African American Pamphlet Collection
- Voices from the Days of Slavery
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938
- Slave Songs of the United States
- Whitney Plantation, Plantation History from the Enslaved Perspective
- Many Roads to Freedom
- Carey, Allison E. “Reading on the (Home) Front: Teaching Soldiers’ Dime Novels.” Teaching the Literatures of the American Civil War. ed. Colleen Glenney Boggs. MLA, 2016.
Suggests teaching Maum Guinea with the dime novel version of William Wells Brown’s Clotelle (1864), one of the first novels by an African American. Situates these texts as soldier’s reading material during the Civil War.
- Roth, Sarah N. Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture. Cambridge UP, 2014.
Situates Maum Guinea as one of several books from the period following Uncle Tom’s Cabin focused on light-skinned slave women, what Roth calls octoroon fiction, subsequently displacing black men from the antislavery narrative.
- Simmons, Michael K. “Maum Guinea, or, A Dime Novelist Looks at Abolition.” Journal of Popular Culture 10 (1976): 81-87.
A useful close reading arguing for Victor’s novel as an abolitionist work.
- Stokes, Mason. The Color of Sex: Whiteness, Heterosexuality, and the Fictions of White Supremacy. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
The most in-depth close reading of Maum Guinea’s representational politics. Critiques Victor’s novel as a capitulation to Southern readers and the romance formula as the novel ends with a “happily ever after” marriage in slavery.