Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Collective Commerce and the Problem of Autobiography in Olaudah Equiano's Narrative

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Collective Commerce and the Problem of Autobiography in Olaudah Equiano's Narrative

Article excerpt

In a formulation that epitomizes the autobiographical reading of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789), Mary Wollstonecraftasserts that the text "should have closed when he once more became his own master."1 Regretting the "long account of [Equiano's] religious sentiments and conversion to Methodism" as "rather tiresome," in her influential review (1789) Wollstonecraftperhaps conveys more about her attitude toward Christianity than any actual criticism of his work.2 Nonetheless, Wollstonecraft's insistence on the flawed trajectory of the Narrative reveals the extent to which readers since its inception have imposed onto the text the desire for autobiography, the desire, that is, for an autonomous, emancipated, and singular self. And with Wollstonecraftat the vanguard of this liberal tradition, the autobiographical interpretation of the Narrative has enjoyed a long, productive critical history.3

The autobiographical reading of the Narrative has two related functions, both desirable for modern critics, but both, in my view, mistaken. First, because "change is . . . the operative metaphor in autobiographical discourse,"4 the category of autobiography allows critics to recognize a thematics of transformation in Equiano's text. This transformation has been discussed as the movement from the anonymous to the known, from the general to the particular, and, most importantly, from the slave to the subject.5 Tracing an "escape from the great mass of the anonymous," and leaving a "record of singularization," an autobiography, like its novelistic counterpart, the bildungsroman, works to dissociate the self from a collective.6 This fact informs the second function of the autobiographical reading. Interpreting the Narrative as autobiography, critics have characterized Equiano's transformation as singular, whether this transformation is understood to culminate in secular or spiritual self-possession. The narrative of Equiano's transformation from slave to subject, sinner to saved, then, figures as the commonplace desideratum of the autobiographical reading of Equiano's text.

What is mistaken in the critical account of Equiano's singularization is not the emphasis on singularity per se, which, indeed, plays a vital role in the Narrative, wherein Equiano describes himself as "a particular favorite of Heaven."7 Rather, I term the autobiographical reading a problem because it reifies the plot of singularization and thus obscures the importance of the collective to the Narrative. 8 In what follows, I attempt to go beyond the autobiographical reading by contesting singularity as the final horizon of the text and emphasizing instead Equiano's interest in communities and in types of people.9 What is more, I find these latter interests to be inextricably related to the Narrative's economic argument. Focusing on Equiano's commitments to collectivity and to the category of the type-commitments that derive from his prior commitment to ameliorative commerce between Britain and Africa-this essay reveals how the Narrative is designed to effect change within the contemporary economic field.

In order to understand how Equiano undertakes this project, I invoke what Ian Baucom recently described as eighteenth-century Britain's "speculative discourse," an economic discourse in which the realist novel figures as an epistemological technology.10 By positioning Equiano's Narrative in the context of this discourse, we can begin to understand Equiano's strategic use of typification, which is found in eighteenth-century novels. Typification allows Equiano to look beyond the actualization of the self and, consequently, toward the actualization of a future aggregate of Africans liberated by the "most immense, glorious, and happy prospect" of collective commerce (235).

What unites the Narrative's form and its attempt to transform the economic field is Equiano's conceptualization of time, which is at the very center of the text's "careful" construction. …

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