- British Slavery:Speech, Writing, Memory
The new books by Brycchan Carey and Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace appeared in print just in advance of this year's two-hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Abolition Act. Carey's British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility is obviously most immediately connected to and conscious of the Wilberforce moment in abolition studies. The British Slave Trade and Public Memory is more concerned with millennial recoveries of and responses to the historical past. Between the two books, readers have an opportunity to gain a long view on the public cultures of slavery and abolition. If Carey explores how Britons spoke about slavery in the past, Wallace aims to articulate the means through which those past understandings have been transmitted to—or obscured from—contemporary generations.
The materials and methods of the two books thus vary widely. Carey is truly interested in the literary style of abolitionist writing and the developments of the relationships between sensibility and the political purposes to which it was put, so that he "narrowly" (9) stakes out both an archive and a goal for his readings. After all, the sentimental seems to be found everywhere in the eighteenth century, but we have very few full taxonomies of the phenomenon. His book begins with an introductory chapter that discusses the rhetorical history of sensibility with admirable clarity: where it came from, how it manifested itself, what it was used for. Carey notes that prose stylists of the eighteenth century did not regard all classical rhetorical figures as equally important or useful, quoting Hume's exhortation to [End Page 107] speakers in Parliament "to observe a method, and make that method conspicuous to the hearers" (44). But, in a move that appears to render the significance of his previous discussion moot, Carey finally seems to abandon his attempts at a full taxonomy. His historical chapter concludes that it is "difficult to pin down precisely" (45) what constitutes the sentimental tone, even though everybody recognizes it when they hear it. He is in a hurry to move on to the mass of detailed local readings that make up the bulk of his book.
Wallace, in contrast, lingers longer over a much more varied set of critical methods: museum studies, ethnographical investigation into the eighteenth-century British city, postcolonial theory with its awareness of how empire affects the mother country and its sense of nation as well as that of the colonial periphery. Her book's intent is to observe the pursuit of memory of the slave past through as many channels as might prove helpful, as a necessary precursor to understanding what it means to be a citizen of modern multicultural and multiracial Britain. For Wallace, this investigation into the painful topic of how slavery has been understood and largely forgotten in the present "may advance a broadly community-building agenda" (22). I must admit I have my doubts about the efficacy of memory and recovery projects serving as community-building tools in the face of what looks like hardening xenophobia around the world. But what strikes me as valuable and invigorating about Wallace's book is how profound it imagines to be the connection between national past and postcolonial present, how deeply she believes—and demonstrates—that our eighteenth-century pasts continue to resonate. Carey is interested in how central a particular rhetorical mode was to abolitionist culture and politics. Wallace places her discussions of slave culture into dialogue with contemporary responses to that culture. Both books are thus implicitly committed to an ethics of emancipation.
Carey's mission to assemble and present his evidence is, of course, much simpler than Wallace's, since he is finally more concerned with his set of readings in the artistic and critical transformations of sensibility than he is with recovering the conditions of abolitionist culture that produced them or with chronicling contemporary responses to them...