- The Cambridge Companion to the African-American Slave Narrative
This collection of essays serves the dual purpose of introducing the antebellum slave narrative and a variety of scholarship on the genre, as well as reflecting a testament to a "sea change" in the pool of major American writers (1). Aside from the wealth of information that these essays contain on specific narratives and the discourses that surround them, the text also provides a review of the past several decades of criticism on slave testimony. The contributors to this volume respond to scholars such as Frances Smith Foster, James Olney, John Sekora, Jean Fagan Yellin, and Robert Stepto. The modest goal of the volume, according to editor Audrey Fisch, is to answer three basic questions about slave narratives: what are they; when, why, and by whom were these narratives written; and who read them?
Fisch divides the book into four parts. The first section, "The Slave Narrative and Transnational Abolitionism," provides some answers to all three queries. With its broad introduction to abolitionism as the most familiar context for eighteenth and nineteenth century narratives, part one privileges the widely read works of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass. Still, the contributors are careful not to suggest that any of the narratives "articulate a fixed black identity" (62). Brief analyses of lesser known narrators like Briton Hammon, Venture Smith, and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw extinguish any ideas of a single slave experience. Though they will not fully germinate until the final part of the collection, this first segment plants seeds to make a distinction between examples and exemplars.
Part two, "The Slave Narrative and Anglo-American Literary Traditions," explores exchanges between slave narratives and other popular literary forms [End Page 478] written during the same era. This section provides more insight into "what" a slave narrative is, as well as who read them. Yolanda Pierce makes assertions about the ex-slave authors' familiarity with captivity narratives and spiritual autobiographies. Robert S. Levine engages existing discourse concerning the slave narrative as autobiography, and provides strong arguments in favor of reading beyond the "white envelope" that John Sekora explores in his 1987 essay on the slave narrative. Cindy Weinstein examines transcultural exchanges between sentimental literature and the slave narrative genre. The value of this chapter is in its refutation of the notion that slave narratives belong solely to an African American literary tradition.
The final segment, "The Slave Narrative and the Politics of Knowledge," provides closer looks at two "representative" slave authors: Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Though there is quite a bit of overlap on Douglass scholarship in this text, John Stauffer provides some interesting information about what he describes as Douglass's transformation from a pawn of abolitionism to a political figure in his own right. The Jacobs case history launches a much needed precaution about "aesthetic value and literary politics, about memory and truth, interpretation and prejudice" (198). In what seems to be a call and response, John Ernest challenges critics to move beyond the "representative" so as to avoid obscuring this particular body of literature, but also to prevent misrepresentations of history. Xiomara Santamarina answers with a salient discussion of the narratives of women like Mary Prince, Elizabeth Keckley, and Ellen Craft.
The penultimate and most exciting segment of the book, "The Slave Narrative and the African American Literary Tradition," examines the development of African American literature not simply as the progeny of the slave narrative, but as work that was prone to the same "political and material forces that shaped the slave narrative" (5). This section provides some of the most refreshing and insightful perspectives on Black literature. It opens with an essay that implores readers and scholars alike to abandon the "big bang" theory—that is, to give up on locating an exact origin of African American and other literatures. A more nuanced understanding of the writing, Robert Reid-Pharr suggests, might be gleaned by considering a wide variety of texts and the politics that impacted them. The discussion of...