Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Wed Jun 20 17:23:21 EDT 2001

Ven asked about possible responses to this.  Here's mine.

The first thing I want to know is how reliable the source is.  In this case,
I consider Sutherland to be pretty reliable, based on his other critiques.
You could take this to extremes and assume that an otherwise reliable person
could have a small and very particular axe to grind, but I think it's fair
enough just to have a general idea of how impartial the critic usually is.

The second is to decide how well the critic's assertions match up with other
facts I might have about the person or subject being discussed.  If the
critic is reliable, and what he or she is writing corresponds to other
critics' statements, I'm probably not going to dig any deeper.

In this case, I don't see any reason to probe further (not to mention I have
neither time nor resources to do so).  But hypothetically, let's assume I'm
not willing to take Sutherland at his word.  Here are some points of the
argument that could be disputed:

The first and general one (in regard to whether Thackeray was a racist) is,
of course, that it's a single source.  Maybe Sutherland is the only person
who thinks this way.  Maybe not.  But it's possible to find out with a quick
trip to the library.

>Sutherland writes:
>The opposition 
>between Philip and Woolcomb is virulently racist and politically 
>weighted in the context of the civil war raging in America in the 
>1860s . Thackeray's position on black Americans (whom he had 
>seen in his 1852 and 1858 trips) was unequivocal and obnoxious: 
>"Sambo is not my man and brother " he frankly declared.

Given that "Sambo" is also a colloquial and offensive term for an archetype,
how sure are we that Thackeray was not actually saying "the kind of black
man presented in popular culture is not anyone's equal, and certainly
doesn't represent actual black men"?  This would be a good place to check
original sources--like Thackeray's public speeches and published editorials.

> His 
>allusion,  is of course to the abolitionist's slogan "Am I not a man 
>and a brother?" In his political sympathies Thackeray was strongly 
>and virulently pro South and anti abolitionist. His prejudices were 
>prominently displayed in the Cornhill magazine, which he edited 
>until March 1862 and to which he was the star contributor until his 
>death at Christmas 1863."  

Another original source to check.

>Sutherland gives as a reference "Thackeray and Slavery" Deborah 
>Thomas (Athens Ohio, 1993)

And I'd want to check this source as well.  How reliable is Thomas?  Does
*she* have an axe to grind?  Did she actually do the research, or is she
depending on other people's work?

And so forth.  Again, I want to stress that I'm not actually suggesting any
of this need be done.  My point is simply that authoritative sources are not
always as correct and authoritative as we might think.

For my senior seminar course I studied Virginia Woolf.  One of our
assignments was to read a critical biography of Woolf or of some aspect of
her life and writing (drawn from a predetermined list) and review/critique
it for the class.  An older woman taking the class stunned me with her
presentation.  Rather than accepting the author's assertions, she actually
checked and read most of the footnotes in her book--and discovered that much
of what the author cited for support was either irrelevant, contradictory or
barely related to the subject.  It cast the entire book into doubt.  For
some reason it had never occurred to me that a critic would be so dishonest,
intentionally or not.  It certainly made me leery of accepting the word of
some critic I didn't know.

But again, this is all hypothetical and general.  Just an idea of how one
might determine the actual veracity of a source, which is sometimes a
necessary part of criticism.

Melissa Proffitt
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