Plantation as Panopticon, Kind of

NM and I have talked some about how surprised she was to find that the Hermitage is so small. Rich people in Europe want you to see how rich they are so they put up these huge, sometimes labyrinthine buildings. But the antebellum home in Tennessee? In general, they’re not huge. And the layouts are pretty consistent. There’s the kind you see all over this area–two rooms downstairs separated by a wide hall with a staircase; two rooms upstairs separated by a wide hall. Doors at either ends of both halls, leading to porches.

And considering how many people were living in one room houses or dog trots, you can see that a house even this size was enormous. Literally four times the size of what most people were living in.

But then you had even richer people–Isaac Franklin, the McGavocks, the aforementioned Jacksons, etc.–whose houses are even larger. Four rooms on the downstairs floor, an even larger hall, four sets of chimneys instead of two, and the upper floor has more variety in the number of room. Often there’s an attic.

Still, until you get to houses built in the 1850s, they’re just not that large.

In the first iteration of the Hermitage, before the fire, Jackson could have stood at the top of his stairs and had a pretty good view of what was going on in most of the rooms in his house.

And I had been thinking about something I noticed when I was at Riverwood–the windows are amazing. You literally have this sense, no matter what room you’re in, of the outside being right there. I kept an eye on this at the Hermitage. It’s a little harder, because the tour is set up to encourage you to look at the house and the things in it and not to imagine what the house must have seemed like to the people who knew it so well as to be oblivious to it most of the time. But same thing–huge windows designed to let a person have a huge view of what’s going on outside.

It makes me wonder if one way to view the main house is as the guard house in the panopticon–the place from which the people in power observe their prisoners without being observed. A luxurious guard house, yes, but a guardhouse. From that perspective, the smallness of the house (and the seeming disorganized ways you tend to see the outbuildings arranged on old plantations) makes sense. The house’s first purpose is not to show off the opulence of the owner. The luxury–the thing tour guides ask us to focus on–is just a disguise for the house’s main task–to provide a comfortable way for the “warden” to monitor the inmates while giving the inmates the sense that they could, at any time, be being watched.

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5 thoughts on “Plantation as Panopticon, Kind of

  1. Yes. This is so. This is why they are built on hills. This is why also why they usually have a short path of escape to a river — always with the consciousness that you’re watching “your people” and you want them to be aware of your watching, but also there might be a terrifying day when you’ll need to flee fast.

    Now that I’m done with a thorough study of Ed Baptist’s book, I can tell everyone who wants to really understand the horror and enduring relevance of slavery to our own economic moment…you gotta read this book. It’s beautifully written and extremely accessible.

  2. I have that on my list to read before I start writing. I was telling C. that, in the context of my pending haunted house story, one thing that really strikes me about why there’s not an iconic Southern haunted house story is that the kinds of things that happen in haunted houses and are seen as unusual–proof something is amiss–would not be that strange in the history of the kind of antebellum homes that seem like they should be the setting for a haunted house.

    Take The Hermitage, for example. If you were lying in your bed at the Hermitage and you heard someone walking out in the hallway, would that be weird? If you put something down on the dining room table and, the next time you came into the room, it was gone, would that really be that strange? The fantasy is that things just happen in the house without you having to do anything. So, if that’s the fantasy, it’s really hard to see it as a horror.

  3. the house kitty corner from my parent’s house is haunted. Like you describe, things move around. They’d wake to find the phone stretched across the room (thus was the ’80s when people used the landline phones w/ the really long cords). Items original to the house were moved – a pair of granny boots belonging to the husband’s grandmother / a glass figurine moved from the top of the mantel to the floor in the center of the room. Footsteps on the wood floors upstairs when the wife was the only person in the house.

  4. The horror is the silence that follows the ringing of the bell…when no one comes to fetch your tray. A whole house where inexplicably your servants have disappeared and not only do you have to do for yourself, but maybe they aren’t quite finished with you.

  5. Bridgett, you’re chillingly reminding me of the calm before the storm in Maidson Smartt Bell’s Haiti books. Such denial, such confusion, such petty little upsets, and total ignorance that some horrible retribution was about to break over them.

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