How is historical imagination embedded in the writing of fiction? In his novels, Machado de Assis depicts narrators who are white men, often wealthy owners of slaves and real estate, who imagine themselves as controllers of a vast network of dependents –free, freed, and enslaved people. These fictional authors represent the worlds of labor according to visions and writing protocols pertaining to their position in society. In regard to slavery, a cursory examination of Machado’s novels suggests its scant presence in his literature. I argue that such impression, totally justified from the perspective of 21st-century readers, fails to grapple with how slavery figured in the imagination and the expectations of both Machado’s fictional authors and the alleged nineteenth-century readers of his novels. In order to detail the argument and make it plausible, I will explore, in parallel, passages from novels and legal documents –in the latter case, a trove of appeals for freedom filed by people once enslaved by the prominent conservative politician Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcellos.