Aunt Caleen and Subversion in Frank Yerby’s "The Foxes of Harrow"

Last post, I wrote about Inch in Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946). Today, I want to take a moment to discuss Inch’s grandmother Caleen and her role in constructing and maintaining Stephen Fox’s plantation at Harrow. Even though the novel focuses on Stephen’s ascendancy in New Orleans society and his growth as a plantation owner, he could not have achieved his position without the work of his slaves, specifically Aunt Caleen and her son.

As discussed in the previous post, Caleen tells her grandson to do what his masters want, biding his time until he can strike. Caleen practices this approach, but because of her age, she never strikes in full out rebellion. Instead, she undermines the prevailing assumptions that many in the novel have about slaves. She takes care of Stephen and his family, and at numerous points, she provides medical assistance to various white characters, besting the doctors whom she works with. From the very beginning, she appears as a subversive force to the grandeur and splendor of Harrow.
When Stephen purchases Caleen and other slaves at an auction, he discovers that they hail from Santo Domingo, the island in the Caribbean that saw the first successful slave uprising in the Americas. A gentleman at the auction tells Stephen, “They’ve seen other Nigras kill white men and maybe they’ve kilt some theyself” (61). The fact that Caleen and the rest of the slaves that Stephen purchases come from Santo Domingo presents them as rebellious, as individuals who will fight against the system of slavery that ensnares them. Caleen does this in her own way, not by physically rebelling but through her actions.
On the first night on the land that would eventually become Harrow, Stephen stays in a lean-to while the slaves occupy other makeshift buildings on the land. As he enters one of the lean-tos, Stephen sits by the fire and becomes overwhelmed as “his stomach [makes him fell] sick to nausea with hunger and weakness” (71). Stephen sees Caleen and a mulatto girl wandering around in the rain and invites them in to his lean-to because, as he says, “Ye’re no good to me dead of lung fever” (71). The pair enter, and Caleen sets to work on building a fire and boiling crawfish. She goes out into the darkness to gather wood and the mudbugs, and when she returns, she shows Stephen how to peel and eat the crustaceans: “When it was done, she took out a crayfish, broke off the head and sucked the meat from the shell, nodding her head to Stephen to indicate this was how it was to be done” (71). Caleen instructs her master how to eat, thus abating his hunger and giving him strength to build the massive plantation. The next morning, Caleen makes breakfast for Stephen and “his people.” Stephen sits apart from them, and Caleen brings him food that is “exactly the same as the others-ash-filled corn bread and crayfish” (72). Here, Caleen equalizes Stephen; he becomes just like the slaves that he owns through the food that he eats.
Later, after Harrow arises from the wilderness, Stephen returns from a ride on his land and Caleen warns him of an impending hurricane. The exchange between master and slave here becomes important. Caleen approaches Stephen and tells him that he should not be riding through the brush because he could injure himself. Stephen then snaps at her, commenting, “Ye’re a bossy old devil, Caleen. I sometimes wonder if I on ye, or ye own me” (81). Caleen calmly responds, “We own each other” (81). Again, Caleen equalizes Stephen. According to Caleen, there is a mutual relationship here, both individuals owning one another. Legally, Caleen is Stephen’s physical property, but on the other hand, Caleen owns Stephen because she, essentially, leads to the success of Harrow.
Caleen’s premonitions about the hurricane leads Stephen to make preparations, harvesting the sugar cane early in preparation for the impending storm. Because of these actions, Stephen’s crop is the only one that ultimately survives the deluge: “Many planters were completely ruined. But when Stephen Fox walked out of the offices of the factors of New Orleans his eyes were dancing Ina face deliberately kept grave and still” (82). Stephen sold his crop for close to one hundred thousand dollars.
If Caleen did not feed Stephen that first night at Harrow, he may have suffered consequences. He may not have perished, but he may have experienced some setbacks and problems that would lead to Harrow being less than it eventually became. Likewise, if he did not need Caleen’s warnings about the hurricane, Stephen’s crop would be ruined with the rest, causing debt and possible deterioration of Harrow and its profits. In these ways, Caleen owns Stephen and builds his fortune for him. These are minor instances, and there are more throughout the novel.
What are your thoughts? How do Caleen’s actions differ from the action of Thomas Sutpen’s slaves in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!? Or, are they similar? What other instances do you see of Caleen’s actions propping up Stephen? As usual, let me know in the comments to below.
Yerby, Frank. The Foxes of Harrow. New York: Dial Press, 1946.

 

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2 thoughts on “Aunt Caleen and Subversion in Frank Yerby’s "The Foxes of Harrow"

  1. Pingback: Frank Yerby and the Myth of Valor | Interminable Rambling

  2. Pingback: The Ghosts of Harrow | Interminable Rambling

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