A level UNSEEN: USA lit for OCR.

Here is a model response to a passage from Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, written in 1892. I wrote this in 55 minutes and offer it as a starting point in discussion of the techniques required for A level unseens. All students writing to time will leave out elements in an unseen, and so do I: the link between the title character and power suggested by the name Leroy, the different speech patterns of the two slaves- one better educated than the other and so on. The point is to write and to show enough awareness of the AOs – particularly AO2 – to convince an examiner. No timed unseen is ever really finished!

The passage is found after my writing.

The passage from Frances Harper’s novel Iola Leroy opens in medias res and plunges the reader directly into a conversation between two men, soon known to be slaves, which apparently concerns the quality of materials available at market. Later in the passage, the narrator offers some explanation to the reader of the content of the conversation and helps to accentuate the difficulties of life for slaves during the civil war of the 1860s.

The passage is set, evidently in ‘C–, a city in North Carolina’. Either the writer is deliberately hiding the precise location or is establishing the city as representative all such cities across the South during the war. The micro-setting of the ‘market’ and the tone of the conversation establishes the passage as set in the South by dint of the emphasis on the agrarian economy which required slaves to sustain the huge plantations which fuelled the economy. Such a world is a development from the original pioneer outlook and life – the ownership of private land on which to develop a future, as seen in novels such as My Antonia, and, as one travels southwards, such land falls increasingly under ownership of slave owners, generating success for themselves and beginning the erosion of the American Dream seen clearly in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in which the journey South is accompanied by diminishing moral standards of behaviour.

Within this setting we meet two slaves and are introduced to their owner. The first speaker – Thomas Anderson is further identified by his owner. The author here establishes first her independence of mind by giving his full name before the form ‘marster Anderson’s Tom’. This form of nomenclature is standard for slaves, seen in Huckleberry Finn, in which even Huck refers to Jim as ‘Miss Watson’s Jim’. Further to this, we notice that slaves take the surname of their owner as their surname – conveying the sense of ownership throughout their lives, in the same way as women become the property of their husbands by marriage – Kate Chopin’s  heroine Edna Pontellier is first introduced in this way, establishing her subservience to her husband and possibly preparing the reader for some form of rebellion later in the novel. Harper uses direct address: whom we shall call…’ thus making the reader complicit in her aim to de-toxify the nomenclature of slavery. Anderson and Johnson are slaves of different owners and there is a relationship between Johnson and his mistress which intrigues the reader.  Harper uses the verb ‘fondled’ to establish the sensual physical contact between mistress and slave, placing the comment ‘strong personal likings for each other’ at the end of the paragraph without further explanation. Presumably there is a sexual liaison of some sort here – a common feature of slave life, though usually seen through the medium of male abuse of the female. When Jim in Huck Finn, shows his concern for his wife and daughter, the reader considers this information in the light of the abuse of female slaves and the number of babies born on plantations from such relationships.

Using the vernacular, a similar technique as used by Twain, Harper establishes the otherness of the slave. For the educated readers of the North caught up in the Gilded Age and the post-bellum boom time, such use of vernacular created not only a sense of realism, but also a frisson of excitement or of the exotic. ‘Oh Glory!’ suggests the hyperbole stereotypically applied to black characters in writing of this time – writing which reflected the stereotypical portrayal of the superstitious and comic black seen in literature and, for a wider audience, in stage shows travelling throughout the USA through the 19th century. The pair discuss produce – or so it seems – rhapsodizing about the produce ‘as fresh as fresh can be’, or ‘splendid’. The impression is that of the ‘happy negro’ unable to think much beyond the simplicity of their everyday life. Their happiness is contrasted with the ‘mighty long faces  at de pos’ office’ presumably referring to the white citizens who are going about their business.

The owner of the plantation, unnamed, is described and fits the stereotype of such characters. He leaves his plantations to the ‘care of his overseers, who employ negroes in positions of authority to help with running the plantation. His life is one of leisure – ‘pleasure resorts’ – and he reflects in his lack of a strong work ethic, the characteristics presented by Twain in ‘Bricksville’ – white idlers happy to pass the day away drinking and gambling. As Harper draws the third paragraph to a conclusion she introduces the idea which will dominate the passage in retrospect – the war. Her metaphor for the civil war  – millstones … grinding slavery to powder- conveys several messages: the millstones of the agrarian south, required to convert the grain into flour, the ‘powder’ referring both to this flour and gunpowder being used on the battlefield. This introduces a serious tone which will be addressed further, following a brief digression for further conversation, in the final paragraph.

In this the style changes. The writing takes on the tone of a serious comment by an omniscient third person narrator. The war is described as a ‘rebellion’ placing the writer as a figure from the North – the South having rebelled to cede from the USA.  The use of the adjective ‘dark’ suggests not just difficulty but also evil, placing the South in the position of transgressors and the use of the term ‘bondmen’ for slaves, suggests the utter distaste the writer has for such terminology. Slaves, seen hitherto as figures of condescending fun, are shown to be clever ‘shrewder’ in inventing a code to allow them to discuss the war.  The earlier conversation is thus explained – the slaves use the produce to spread news of military defeat for the South – something far too dangerous to express openly at this time. The slaves remain trapped – Harper does not inflect the comment about some ‘numbers’ who deserted, though she is definite in her reading of the state of the war: ‘freedom was coming’ she says, suggesting that none considered the other possibility: defeat. Just as Jim surprises Huck from time to time by his resourcefulness, so these slaves are shown to be the opposite of the stereotype. Sadly for them, the reality, as seen in texts like Native Son and The Jungle, is that freedom did not bring immediate benefit and the industrial North, offered freedom slavery but little real freedom form repression.

Frances E.W. Harper – Iola Leroy


“Good mornin’, Bob; how’s butter dis mornin’?”

“Fresh; just as fresh, as fresh can be.”

“Oh, glory!” said the questioner, whom we shall call Thomas Anderson, although he was known among his acquaintances as Marster Anderson’s Tom.

His informant regarding the condition of the market was Robert Johnson, who had been separated from his mother in his childhood and reared by his mistress as a favorite slave. She had fondled him as a pet animal, and even taught him to read. Notwithstanding their relation as mistress and slave, they had strong personal likings for each other.

Tom Anderson was the servant of a wealthy planter, who lived in the city of C——, North Carolina. This planter was quite advanced in life, but in his earlier days he had spent much of his time in talking politics in his State and National capitals in winter, and in visiting pleasure resorts and watering places in summer. His plantations were left to the care of overseers who, in their turn, employed negro drivers to aid them in the work of cultivation and discipline. But as the infirmities of age were pressing upon him he had withdrawn from active life, and given the management of his affairs into the hands of his sons. As Robert Johnson and Thomas Anderson passed homeward from the market, having bought provisions for their respective homes, they seemed to be very light-hearted and careless, chatting and joking with each other; but every now and then, after looking furtively around, one would drop into the ears of the other some news of the battle then raging between the North and South which, like two great millstones, were grinding slavery to powder.

As they passed along, they were met by another servant, who said in hurried tones, but with a glad accent in his voice:—

“Did you see de fish in de market dis mornin’? Oh, but dey war splendid, jis’ as fresh, as fresh kin be.”

“That’s the ticket,” said Robert, as a broad smile overspread his face.
“I’ll see you later.”

“Good mornin’, boys,” said another servant on his way to market. “How’s eggs dis mornin’?”

“Fust rate, fust rate,” said Tom Anderson. “Bob’s got it down fine.”

“I thought so; mighty long faces at de pos’-office dis mornin’; but I’d better move ‘long,” and with a bright smile lighting up his face he passed on with a quickened tread.

There seemed to be an unusual interest manifested by these men in the state of the produce market, and a unanimous report of its good condition. Surely there was nothing in the primeness of the butter or the freshness of the eggs to change careless looking faces into such expressions of gratification, or to light dull eyes with such gladness. What did it mean?

During the dark days of the Rebellion, when the bondman was turning his eyes to the American flag, and learning to hail it as an ensign of deliverance, some of the shrewder slaves, coming in contact with their masters and overhearing their conversations, invented a phraseology to convey in the most unsuspected manner news to each other from the battle-field. Fragile women and helpless children were left on the plantations while their natural protectors were at the front, and yet these bondmen refrained from violence. Freedom was coming in the wake of the Union army, and while numbers deserted to join their forces, others remained at home, slept in their cabins by night and attended to their work by day; but under this apparently careless exterior there was an undercurrent of thought which escaped the cognizance of their masters. In conveying tidings of the war, if they wished to announce a victory of the Union army, they said the butter was fresh, or that the fish and eggs were in good condition. If defeat befell them, then the butter and other produce were rancid or stale.