The Slumbering Volcano

American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity

The Slumbering Volcano

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: Published: September 1997

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, History > U.S. History

In The Slumbering Volcano, Maggie Montesinos Sale investigates depictions of nineteenth-century slave ship revolts to explore the notion of rebellion in formulations of United States national identity. Analyzing how such revolts inspired citizens to debate whether political theory directed at free men could be extended toward blacks, Sale compares the reception of fictionalized versions of ship revolts published in the 1850s—Benito Cereno by Herman Melville and The Heroic Slave by Frederick Douglass—with the previous decade’s public accounts of actual rebellions by enslaved people on the ships Amistad and Creole.
This comparison of narrative response with written public reaction to the actual revolts allows Sale to investigate the precise manner in which public opinion regarding definitions of liberty evolved over this crucial period of time between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Mapping the ways in which unequally empowered groups claimed and transformed statements associated with the discourse of national identity, Sale succeeds in recovering a historically informed sense of the discursive and activist options available to people of another era.
In its demonstration of how the United States has been uniquely shaped by its dual status as both an imperial and a postcolonial power, this study on the discourse of natural rights and national identity in the pre-Civil War United States will interest students and scholars of American studies, African American studies, gender studies, and American history and literature.


The Slumbering Volcano . . . develops a feminist perspective where others have emphasized the development of black nationalism or articulated the causes and intensity of slave resistance in the nineteenth century. Her approach ‘defamiliarizes’ the literary texts by siting them in relation to information not traditionally within the province of literary scholars, thus providing a new perspective.” — Richard A. Goodridge , Journal of Caribbean History

“[The Slumbering Volcano] is marked by intensive and ingenious explication of texts.” — , Choice

“[An] important book. . . . Sale skillfully and persuasively reconstructs the public debate about these events and illustrates the ways in which they were utilized to meditate on national identity. . . . The Slumbering Volcano sheds light on our ‘national inheritance,’ which, as Baldwin reminds us, is a legacy of dispossession.” — Saidiya Hartman , Labour/Le Travail

“[W]hat is eminently important here is Maggie Montesinos Sale’s insistence on the collaborative nature and competing uses of popular revolutionary discourse in black and white antebellum communities and her employment of a broad definition of national discourse to make this point.” — MLQ

“Describing the strategies put into effect by rebellious slaves to deconstruct—violently as well as rhetorically—normalized white masculinity, Sale highlights possibilities of resistance within antebellum culture.” — Russ Castronovo , American Literature

“In this well-written and tightly argued study, Maggie Montesinos Sale skillfully unites history, gender studies, literary and political theory to unravel the complex and troubled relationship between race, slavery, rebellion and the formation of national identity in antebellum America.” — Edward A. Pearson , Slavery & Abolition

“Maggie Montesinos Sale investigates the depiction of nineteenth century slave ship revolts to explore the notion of the rebellion in formulations of United States national identity. Analyzing other revolts besides the now famous Amistad affair, Montesinos Sale succeeds in providing a background of rebellion to support her thesis. . . . Written in a very readable manner, her concepts are intriguing and refreshing. Well worth reading.” — , Caribbean Historical and Genealogical Journal

“Maggie Montesinos Sale’s ambitious book uses these slave ship revolts and stories as departure points to reconsider American nationalism, Lockean natural rights, and race as they were then understood. At her best, Sale presents the ironies underlying Americans’ trope of revolutionary struggle in light of popular responses to slave rebellions aboard ship. . . . Provocative, complex, and tantalizing. . . . Sale is at once historian, literary critic, and theorist exploring a variety of discourses. . . . [T]here are many rewards here for students of cultural studies interested in the interrelationship of gender, race, and rhetoric.” — W. Jeffrey Bolster , Northern Mariner

“Readers will gain much from a new book by Maggie Montesinos Sale entitled The Slumbering Volcano. Sale, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Columbia University, includes a detailed 60-page chapter on the Amistad affair as well as a 25-page chapter on the Creole affair (which took place in 1841, two years after the Amistad uprising). She also provides chapters analyzing two fictionalized accounts of ship revolts that appeared during the 1850s: ‘Benito Cereno’ by Herman Melville and ‘The Heroic Slave’ by Frederic Douglass.” — Allen J. Share, Courier-Journal

“Slave conspiracies and seaboard mutinies have attracted a good deal of historical attention of late, as scholars fight to include those black insurgents traditionally depicted as marginal or deviant in the mainstream of the American saga. But only Sale has thought to investigate the way in which fictional depictions of slave rebelliousness helped to shape the discourse over American national identity. . . . Sale is to be lauded for undertaking the study of a subject previously ignored by writers who chronicle slave rebelliousness.” — Douglas R. Egerton , American Historical Review

“The ambition of this illuminating book is matched by its careful research in primary materials as well as its theoretical and conceptual sophistication. . . . Sale has historicized the languages of race and gender in innovative ways, and future critical studies will have to reckon with them.” — Philip Gould , New England Quarterly

“Using perceptive studies of the rebellions of slaves aboard the Amistad (1839) and the Creole (1841), this work brings forward the limitations of white, and especially, male perspectives. In doing this the author adds to a field sorely neglected. . . . The volume is challenging and should not be overlooked by those trying to comprehend history.” — Hebert Aptheker , Journal of American History

The Slumbering Volcano theorizes the discourse of nationalism, natural rights, and race in a refreshingly undogmatic manner, making a splendid contribution to the growing body of theory on race, masculinity, and national identity formation.” — Carolyn Karcher, author of The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child, published by Duke Univer

“Sale combines an impressive array of historical material with keen analytic skills, an attention to the larger picture with a sensitivity to the nuances of language and rhetoric. The result is an original reading of how and why enslaved people were unable to tell their own stories.” — Priscilla Wald


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Maggie Montesinos Sale is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Assistant Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1992-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1983-2
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