The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel

The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel

The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel

The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel


Conceived as a literary form to aggressively publicize the abolitionist cause in the United States, the African American slave narrative remains a powerful and illuminating demonstration of America's dark history. Yet the genre's impact extended far beyond the borders of the U.S. In a period when few books sold more than five hundred copies, slave narratives sold in the tens of thousands, providing British readers vivid accounts of the violence and privation experienced by American slaves. Eloquent, bracing narratives by Frederick Douglass, William Box Brown, Solomon Northrop, and others enjoyed unprecedented popularity, captivating audiences that included activists, journalists, and some of the era's greatest novelists. The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel investigates the shaping influence of the American slave narrative on the Victorian novel in the years between the British Abolition Act and the American Emancipation Proclamation. The book argues that Charlotte Brontë, W. M. Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson integrated into their works generic elements of the slave narrative-from the emphasis on literacy as a tool of liberation, to the teleological journey from slavery to freedom, to the ethics of resistance over submission. It contends that Victorian novelists used these tropes in an attempt to access the slave narrative's paradigm of resistance, illuminate the transnational dimension of slavery, and articulate Britain's role in the global community. Through a deft use of disparate sources, Lee reveals how the slave narrative becomes part of the textual network of the English novel, making visible how black literary, as well as economic, production contributed to English culture. Lucidly written, richly researched, and cogently argued, Julia Sun-Joo Lee's insightful monograph makes an invaluable contribution to scholars of American literary history, African American literature, and the Victorian novel, in addition to highlighting the vibrant transatlantic exchange of ideas that illuminated literatures on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century.


These are the gifts of art; and art thrives most
Where Commerce has enrich’d the busy coast;
He catches all improvements in his flight,
Spreads foreign wonders in his country’s sight,
Imports what others have invented well,
And stirs his own to match them, or excel.
‘Tis thus, reciprocating each with each,
Alternately the nations learn and teach;
While Providence enjoins to ev’ry soul
A union with the vast terraqueous whole.

William Cowper, Charity (1782)

On March 17, 1848, Charles Dickens wrote a letter to his friend William Charles Macready, enclosing a copy of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative with the brief introduction, “Here is Frederick Douglass.” Macready, the famous Irish actor who was soon to embark on a tour of America, was interested in learning more about slavery, and Douglass’s slave narrative, which had already gone through nine British editions by 1847, was a transatlantic bestseller. After a few paragraphs expressing concern for Mrs. Macready’s health, Dickens continued, “—To return to Frederick Douglass. There was such a hideous and abominable portrait of him in the book, that I have torn it out, fearing it might set you, by anticipation, against the narrative.”

Dickens’s impulse to tear out Douglass’s picture seems jarring given his apparent admiration for the narrative; after all, he had not only read the book himself, but was now sending a copy, with his recommendation, to a friend. The portrait in question is presumably from the first British edition of Douglass’s Narrative and depicts a slightly bemused-looking Douglass, dressed in the garb of a Victorian gentleman (see figure I.1). The frontispiece is signed by the artist, B. Bell, and the engraver, H. Adlard, and was possibly copied from a painting of Douglass once attributed to Elisha Hammond. Douglass is stiffly posed, with an elongated face and nose, prominent cheekbones, stylized hair, and truncated bust. Following nineteenth-century portrait engraving conventions, the picture is left partially unfinished to emphasize the artifice of the engraving. Ezra Greenspan argues that such portraits served as “particularly appropriate openings to slave narratives, which were confirmations of identity and celebrations of free individuals emerging out of an institution that strove to keep such individuality invisible, blank, and unformed.” They routinely appeared in . . .

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