Eneas Africanus, written by the prolific Southern writer and journalist Harry Sitwell Edwards, was and is one of the most popular works of pro-slavery literature in the post-Civil War era. Wilson Library holds nine total copies of the book across three collections: the Rare Book Collection, the Southern Historical Collection, and the North Carolina Collection. Each copy of the book held at Wilson is unique, produced at various times over the course of the book’s long and storied print run. The number of different copies of the book still extant attest to its ongoing popularity and the enduring legacy of pro-slavery sentiment in America long after abolition.
Eneas Africanus was first published in 1919 by the J.W. Burke Company in Macon, Georgia. The book went through a dizzying number of editions, reprints, and re-issues over the course of the twentieth century. J.W. Burke alone offered the book in an ever-widening array of bindings, with and without illustrations, between 1919 and 1954. The firm also published a sequel tale, Eneas Africanus Defendant, in 1920. “The Demand for Eneas and other books by Mr. Edwards is so great,” reads one advertisement, “that we believe his friends will appreciate our bringing out these additional gems of the Old South, the old-time negro and his old-time ‘white folks.’”
The use of the word ‘old-time’ is more than just savvy advertising: at least part of the appeal of Eneas Africanus for twentieth-century readers was its almost aggressively backward-looking mentality, a nostalgia for a romanticized version of pre-war racial harmony predicated on black dependence to white masters. In the wake of Reconstruction, as former Confederate states sought to reassert a racial hierarchy through Jim Crow legislation, pro-slavery narratives emerged as a way to repackage the subjugation of black individuals by recasting the slave/master relationship as familial. Pro-slavery narratives advanced an essentially racist notion that black people were inherently child-like and unsophisticated, in need of white protection. These racist depictions often passed as innocuous because their stereotyping was seen as depicting black people as essentially good, if inferior.
Eneas Africanus perfectly encapsulates this pro-slavery narrative. The story is presented as a series of letters written in response to a newspaper ad, reminiscent of an eighteenth-century epistolary novel. The letters follow the journey of a former slave, the titular Eneas, as he seeks to return to his former master, Major Tommey, in the wake of the Civil War. Eneas himself does not appear until the final chapter of the book, but is described by various correspondents throughout the South, who have encountered him on his journey. The letters emphasize Eneas’s ignorance of names and places–his journey is much extended, for example, by his confusion at there being multiple towns with names like Jackson or Decatur. Summaries of the book often emphasize Eneas’s faithfulness to Major Tommey, and his desire to return home. In fact, the plot of the novel hinges on the possibility of Eneas’s disloyalty. The catalyst for the initial newspaper ad is Tommey’s wish to reclaim a valuable silver cup, a family heirloom, before the wedding of his only daughter. In letter after letter, characters from across the the South write to Tommey insisting that the cup must be lost forever, and imply that Eneas must have stolen it. Only in the final pages does Eneas appear in person to reveal his faithfulness—not by his return, but by the returning of Tommey’s property.
Of course, Eneas himself is also property by the logic of the plot, and he reminds Tommey, and the reader, that this is the case. He even goes so far as to extend Tommey’s property rights over his own wife and children, comparing them to the colt born of Tommey’s brood mare during his journey: “Some folks tell me dey is free, but I know dey b’long ter Marse George Tommey, des like Lady Chain and her colt!” Although slavery has ended in America, Eneas cheerfully volunteers himself and his family to remain enslaved.
The book’s emphasis on a new generation of slaves is at odds with the authorial preface, which marks Eneas as a “vanishing type.” There is tension between the book’s message that black subordination is natural, not subject to law or government, and its uneasy recognition that the tale is difficult to believe. “Is the story true?” the author’s preface anxiously asks, “everybody says it is.” Unlike Eneas, who returns to the site of his former enslavement after seven years of freedom, the book’s popularity coincided with the height of the Great Migration, a time that saw great numbers of African Americans leave the South for urban centers in the North.
It’s also no coincidence that the popularity of Sitwell’s “vanishing type” came just on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance’s New Negro Movement. Literature and art of the Harlem Renaissance foregrounded black experience and black consciousness through the eyes of black authors—Sitwell’s Eneas stands in stark contrast to these contemporaneous works, and its popularity is a signal that white representations of blackness continued to dominate popular culture. The circulation of copies of the text is itself interesting: three of the copies in Wilson Library come from personal archives of Southern notables. Elsewhere, intriguing association copies proliferate: Eleanor Roosevelt owned a copy given to her by politico Chip Robert; Carl Van Vechten, author of a controversial novel chronicling the Harlem Renaissance, owned a copy given to him by African-American novelist Nella Larson.
The J.W. Burke imprint represents only a portion of the total editions of Eneas Africanus. Several private press editions were produced at presses across the country as well as two trade editions: a Canadian edition in 1937 and a New York edition in 1940. The New York edition, published by Grosset & Dunlap, includes a preface by Sitwell’s daughter, Holly Bluff, who took over printing the book from J.W. Burke Company’s 3rd edition plates under the imprint Eneas Africanus Press. Eneas Africanus Press released a more lavish illustrated edition (printed from the plates of a 1932 private press production) in 1973. The appeal of the book in the North points to creeping pro-slavery sentiment outside of the former Confederacy.