Slavery, Labor Reform, and Intertextuality in Antebellum Print Culture: The Slave Narrative and the City-Mysteries Novel

By Ostrowski, Carl | African American Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Slavery, Labor Reform, and Intertextuality in Antebellum Print Culture: The Slave Narrative and the City-Mysteries Novel


Ostrowski, Carl, African American Review


Some of the most provocative recent scholarship in the fields of 19th-century American studies and American literature has been devoted to recovering exchanges between black and white cultural forms. (1) Writing specifically about the antebellum period, for example, Jennifer Rae Greeson has recently unearthed the fascinating relationship between the city-mysteries novel and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (2) The premise of the current article is that the genres of the slave narrative and the city-mysteries novel shared numerous points of contact in the 1840s and 1850s as a result of their position within the overlapping print cultures of abolition and labor reform. Starting with these two genres but reading outward from them to the wider print culture in which they were embedded, I will document a rich field of intertextuality in which literary devices and rhetorical postures passed readily back and forth across racial and generic boundaries, in a process that was mediated by the structures and agencies of the antebellum publishing trade.

Underlying and justifying this analysis is the fact that slave narratives by Frederick Douglass, Henry Box Brown, and others, and fictional exposes of urban life, by authors such as George Lippard and George Thompson, enjoyed simultaneous and unprecedented popularity in the urban northeastern United States in the 1840s and 1850s. (3) The city-mysteries novels introduced readers to the seamy underground life of places like New York and Boston, employing gothic settings, colorful villains, and outrageous plots. A hallmark of this literature was its ostensible reform agenda, as authors purported to expose the crimes that wealthy capitalists committed at the expense of virtuous laborers; Michael Denning labels this ideology as "artisan republicanism" (Denning 103). (4) These novels, published by such commercial firms as T. B. Peterson & Brothers of Philadelphia and Stringer & Townsend and Frederic A. Brady of New York, sold in cheap formats to an urban, working-class audience that delighted in the genre's graphic violence and sexual titillation. The (white) authors' claims to a radical political agenda were sometimes merely a ploy by which they gave a high-minded pretense to erotically charged fiction, though in Lippard's case, at least, there was an active commitment to the labor movement.

The slave narratives, by contrast, were published with the support of abolitionist organizations and were aimed largely at the white middle-class audience perceived to have the political power to bring pressure to bear on the institution of slavery. When these authors depicted brutal violence and sexual exploitation, it was with the intention of shocking the sensibilities of their audience, and their political aims were obviously genuine. It is difficult to judge the extent to which readers of the two genres overlapped. (5) But the city-mysteries novel and slave narrative occupied a common print culture that facilitated the traversal of certain forms of expression from one to the other, sometimes as part of a network of intertextual relationships within the publishing field of reform literature, but also as a result of the direct plundering of one genre by authors from the other. The latter appears to be true of the influence of the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown on Thompson's City Crimes and Lippard's The Empire City, a case in which the way that white authors borrowed from and effaced a black writer's work emerges with unusual, even startling, clarity.

Henry Box Brown acquired his middle name by having himself mailed on March 29, 1849, as a parcel from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia (a 27-hour, 350-mile journey). Brown bored holes in a three-foot high packing crate, provided himself with a bladder of water, and suffered the hardships of the journey, among which were being turned upside-down, a detail worth noting for reasons that will soon become apparent:

   I was first carried to the express office,
   the box being placed on its end, so that
   I started with my head downwards,
   although the box was directed, "this
   side up with care. … 

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