The Slave's Narrative

By Charles T. Davis; Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview

3. The Slave Narratives
as Literature

One of the most quickly expanding fields of contemporary literary history is narrative theory. Those principles upon which we define "autobiography" and "fiction," long thought to be self-evident and matters of common sense, have recently been recognized to be problematical.Moreover, the status of the black slave's texts have, only in the past two decades, received as much close analysis and practical criticism as have other sorts of written discourse. It was to collect these recent examples of literary criticism that the editors originally agreed to prepare this collection.

The essays collected here analyze the narratives as literary works. Some explicate the shared tropes and themes of the genre; others discuss their textual inter-relationships as literary history; still others are close readings of discrete texts. Jean Fagan Yellin's essay marshals evidence to prove that the richest female slave narrative, the veracity of which until recently disputed by historians as scrupulous as John Blassingame, is indeed the narrative written by the slave, Harriet Jacobs, "by herself." Charles Nichols compares the structural similarities of the genre to other genres, while Susan Willis's explication of Juan Manzano's little-known narrative of Cuban slavery is one of the first studies of that major text. Critics such as Houston A. Baker, Jr., James Olney, and Robert Burns Stepto read the narratives "against" contemporary narrative theory, while Paul Edwards explains in some detail the relatively-understudied eighteenth-century origins of the narratives. Melvin Dixon discusses the intertextuality of the narratives and recent black fictional forms.

Long after the historical and political issues addressed by the black slave's texts have lost their passion, these texts, the essays collected here argue, shall remain of interest to the students of literature and of criticism, both for what they can teach us of the nature of narrative and for what they reveal about the urge of the human will to transcend the very chaos of experience with imposed literary figures and structures.

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