Academic journal article Early American Literature

Satire, Minstrelsy, and Embodiment in Sheppard Lee

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Satire, Minstrelsy, and Embodiment in Sheppard Lee

Article excerpt

Let those shine now that never shined before, And those that always shone now shine the more.

--Advertisement to Hunt's Blacking.

The above epigraph to Robert Montgomery Bird's 1836 novel Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself suggests that it will be a tale of transformation, and indeed its protagonist undergoes profound changes. After Sheppard Lee strikes his foot with a mattock while digging for buried treasure in a New Jersey forest, his spirit exits his body (47). The disembodied Lee wanders the woods until he comes across the corpse of Squire Higginson, a local brewer, and to his surprise, he finds that he can house his spirit in the dead man's body and reanimate it (52). Upon doing so, he discovers that Higginson's corpse carries within it an innate character that changes his natural affections and instincts. Drawing on the language of contemporary medicine, he says that the new body's power over his thought and behavior is such that he becomes a completely different person. Over the course of the novel, he bounces from corpse to corpse--rich and poor, free and slave--reporting throughout that his original identity is overwhelmed by the makeup of others' physiques. That the bodies Lee inhabits are dead emphasizes the degree to which he views their materiality itself as determinative: "much of the evil and good of man's nature," he says, "arise from causes and influences purely physical" (140).

Scholars who have written about Sheppard Lee tend to understand Bird as in agreement with Lee's materialist account of selfhood because this account dovetails with early nineteenth-century medical discourses on character and consciousness. Bird was, after all, a physician. Samuel Otter offers an insightful reading of the ways Lee's account of embodiment calls attention to the soul's ties to "the material it inhabits"; this account, Otter asserts, "stem[s] from [Bird's] medical training" (100, 95). Christopher Looby, similarly, writes in his trenchant introduction to the novel that its "physiognomic determinism ... must owe a good deal to Bird's experience as a medical doctor" (xvii). Recently, Jordan Alexander Stein and Justine Murison have read the novel as having a less straightforward relationship to Lee's portrayal of embodiment. In particular, both attend to how Bird uses Lee's materialist metaphysics of consciousness as a source of comedy. Stein notes that Lee's philosophical materialism "erases the distinction between the willed or chosen, on the one hand, and the inevitable, on the other," and that the novel plays Lee's materialism "largely for comedy"; he does not, though, pursue in depth what comedic materialism might mean for how we read the novel (34). Instead, he argues that Lee's materialism, because it downplays the power of individuals to control their bodies, is part of a wider critique of Jacksonian democracy, a political movement predicated on the idea that the common man is fit to govern himself (36). Justine Murison reads the novel as a satire of "the politics of physiological sympathy" that indicates the absurdity of sympathetically conflating one person with another (27).

In this essay I read the novel's depiction of embodiment as a source of comedy, but my argument differs from prevailing scholarship in that I claim that embodiment itself is the butt of Bird's joke. I view two comedic forms at play, one of which is satire: like his contemporary and admirer Edgar Allan Poe, who is the likely author of a favorable review of Sheppard Lee in the Southern Literary Messenger, Bird delights in lampooning all elements of Jacksonian life. (1) As Murison, especially, emphasizes, Sheppard Lee explores the use of embodiment as a vantage point from which to satirize contemporary politics and culture. Though she and other critics are correct to view Lee as endorsing the view that the body determines the mind, it does not follow to say the same of Bird, as many do; doing so conflates author and narrator. …

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