Victorian Studies 44.3 (2002) 509-511
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American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture, by Audrey Fisch; pp. vii + 139. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000, £35.00, $59.95.
Audrey Fisch's American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture is an intriguing book about a well-known but little-traversed aspect of nineteenth-century Anglo-American transatlantic culture. "As the black American abolitionist campaign was translated across the Atlantic," Fisch writes, "it was manipulated into pre-existing Victorian discourses of culture and class, the worker/slave, education and exotica, and became a compelling touchstone for English nationalism" (10). Reprising several chapters previously published in Victorian venues, Fisch's slim volume adds to the [End Page 509] literature on abolitionism, nationalism, gender, and class in Victorian culture. Fisch's intention, or perhaps her contention, is to show that Black American abolitionist discourse shaped English nationalism. Indeed, although one might critique the unidirectional focus of the argument which ignores the more dialectical interaction, generally speaking, this aspect of Fisch's clearly worded thesis has consensus among scholars who have analyzed the construction of "Englishness" or what the Victorians called English national character.
The book begins promisingly with a close reading of several partially censored lines in an early British edition of Frederick Douglass's canonical slave narrative first published in 1845. In this opening section, Fisch reads English editor J. B. Estlin's rationale for excising Douglass's discussion of "breeding" female slaves and claims that Estlin's actions were meant to protect refined English ladies and English taste. More importantly, however, Estlin's bowdlerizing speaks to his own desire to control the slave text's circulation. "In circulating Douglass's narrative, as part of a larger effort to inform the English public about American slavery and raise international support for American abolition, Estlin strives for, and is troubled by his lack of control over a variety of issues unrelated to the lives of black-skinned men and women [a phrase that Fisch should only have used in quotations] across the Atlantic" (4). Fisch's attention to the violent excision of a scene of violence complements Saidiya Hartman's brilliant work on the mundane and murderous performances produced by slavery in her important book, Scenes of Subjection (1997). Both texts track the quotidian and radically different effects of slavery.
Using insights gleaned from reception studies as her central methodology, Fisch has, in the manner of Walter Houghton, studied Victorian periodicals such as the Spectator and The Times, as well as Christian journals, for the ways in which these periodicals shape and represent English national concerns. Chapter 1, "'Exhibiting Uncle Tom in Some Shape or Other': The Commercialization and Reception of Uncle Tom's Cabin in England," analyzes reviews of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-52). "Abolition as a 'Step to Reform Our Kingdom': Chartism, 'White Slaves,' and a New 'Uncle Tom' in England" looks at reviews of the lesser-known but intriguing British novel Uncle Tom in England, A Proof That Black's White (1853). The third chapter is titled "'Repetitious Accounts So Piteous and So Harrowing': The Ideological Work of American Slave Narratives in England." Chapter four, "'Negrophilism' and Nationalism: The Spectacle of the African-American Abolitionist," reads accounts of and by the actual black abolitionists Henry "Box" Brown and Sarah Parker Remond. A short epilogue, entitled, "'How Cautious and Calculating': English Audiences and the Imposter, Reuben Nixon," discusses the idea of the black slave imposter. Reiterating her thesis, Fisch shows how the reactions to representations of American slavery spoke volumes about "the definers, not the defined," to quote Toni Morrison. The book's goal is to expose the false consciousness among the British public who were, despite their best efforts, unable to regard black people as fully human beings. Fisch's book partially replicates this problem, as it does not distinguish sufficiently between written and spoken documents—or, to put it more crudely, between slave narratives and performed narratives...