Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Perennial Value of the Slave Narrative

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Perennial Value of the Slave Narrative

Article excerpt

THE READER WHO ENTERS FULLY INTO THE WORLD of the slave narrative-who allows the persons and scenes described therein to take on the stamp of reality in the theater of the imagination-is certain to come away from the text with both a pained heart and an uplifted soul. The heart feels pain in sympathy with those who suffered under slavery: the child who was sold away from her parents, never to see them again; the old man who dropped dead in a cotton row under a blazing sun, worn out like one a thousand years old; the young woman who was violated by her master and who was then daily tormented by his jealous wife, the mistress of the household; the man who lost his flesh to the whip and his spirit to the grind of long days; and the woman who escaped to the North only to be caught by slave hunters who returned her south, where the devil made his home. One feels disturbed when one reads of these events and imagines them as having involved persons as fully human as ourselves.

But the slave narrative is not simply a chronicle of suffering, as might be said of abolitionist works like Theodore Weld's American Slavery As It Is (1839). The slave narrative is also the record of the human spirit triumphant. The figure of the ex-slave who tells her story to an amanuensis or who writes it herself (nowithstanding Frederick Douglass' observation that slavery is a "poor school" for the development of literary powers), approximates a compelling mythic type in the American experience, the self-made person. In the nineteenth century (the great age of the slave narrative), the self-made person held interest for Americans from all walks of life. Thus, in one of the first critical appraisals of the slave narrative as a literary genre, the abolitionist Ephraim Peabody asserted that the man whose life involved a passage from slavery to freedom "is associating with himself no small part of the romance of the time."' The individual who would be himself despite the claims of the world had one point of origin in Protestantism. In the antebellum period, Romantic and Transcendentalist thinkers conceived of self-reliance as less an abstruse theological matter than a concrete ethical foundation for what Emerson called "the conduct of life." Self-mastery and self-possession were also key to American political values: the ideal of the autonomous citizen-which stands at the heart of both Jeffersonian republicanism and Jacksonian democracy-was simply unthinkable in the absence of these desiderata.

The story of the ex-slave who came into possession of herself by stealing away from her master can be regarded, then, as a poignant variation on a fundamental concern of the nineteenth century: the individual's vexed relationship with matters of autonomy, will, and freedom. To be sure, the moral ethos informing the slave narrative radically differs from that which informs the conventional autobiography of self-reliant individualism. In the final analysis, the ex-slaves invariably represent themselves as individuals who necessarily belong to (overlapping) communities of one sort or another-the black community, the abolitionist community, the community of true Christian believers and the imagined community of the nation state. In contrast, the conventional autobiographer in the self-made tradition-- say, Benjamin Franklin-is apt to present himself as only contingently related to other members of society. However, the ex-slave and the conventional autobiographer take a similar stand on the individual's relation to the universe: the triumph of the ex-slave over the claims of "the peculiar institution" affirms that all is not determined, that the individual will never want for an opportunity, as small as it might be, to transform her being in the world in accordance with her inmost desires. It is this "existential" element of the ex-slave's experience, the pitting of will and spirit against a radically inhuman world (perversely made by humans!), that makes of the slave narrative a singular contribution to both the anti-slavery cause and, more broadly, the autobiographical tradition of American letters. …

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