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Chapter 4 The Work of Death: Time, Crime, and Personhood in Jacksonian America Lord what is Man? Or rather what are not brutes? —The Address of Abraham Johnstone (1797) Faced with the dilemma race slavery and its legacy posed to the new republic , such prominent Americans as Noah Webster, Thomas Jefferson, and St. George Tucker suggested that a slavery-engendered propensity for crime precluded blacks’ belated entry into the social compact. For his part, condemned ex-slave Abraham Johnstone held accountable not African Americans but the citizens who had yet to answer for their nation’s guilty past. The Address of Abraham Johnstone seized penal scrutiny of imputed black criminality as an occasion to call for political and legal reform, thereby anticipating antebellum abolitionists’ efforts to redraw the lines connecting slavery, crime, responsibility, and political membership. “The enslaved people” may still have been figuratively “on trial” in nineteenth-century America, but by the time Frederick Douglass made that observation in 1855, twenty-five years of abolitionist print agitation had also placed the slave “system . . . at the bar of public opinion . . . for judgment.”1 Supplanting gallows literature’s confessing malefactor with the slave narrative’s testifying “eye-witness to the cruelty,” abolitionist publicists sought to display African Americans’ civil potential (and thus eligibility for citizenship) while making slaveholders and all American citizens answerable for the national crime of slavery.2 With its highly interiorized account of the birth, growth, and maturation of the leader of the bloodiest slave uprising in American history, Thomas Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner broke with the black catalogues of the early 165 The Work of Death American scaffold tradition while looking forward to the fugitive slave narratives promoted by the antebellum abolitionist movement. The scandal that greeted the first such publication, the Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, suggests the difficulty many Americans still had in conceiving of a civic, rather than criminal, black public presence. After spending much of 1838 responding to print allegations that Williams was a fraud, an imposter , perhaps even a murderer, the American Anti-Slavery Society formally withdrew from circulation his sensational “testimony” to the brutality of southwestern slavery.3 As AASS Executive Committee members were trying to decide how best to dispose of Williams’s Narrative, newspapers along the Eastern seaboard were following the unsuccessful insanity defense mounted by Edward Coleman, who in a paroxysm of jealousy had all but decapitated his wife Anne in full view of passersby on New York’s Broadway. Press coverage of the enraged razor-wielding African American murderer apparently inspired literary nationalist Edgar Allan Poe to craft a new kind of crime literature with his detective story about a wrathful razor-wielding killer ape. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” appeared in Graham’s Magazine in April 1841, just as an eloquent Maryland fugitive was embarking on the public autobiographical performance that would yield the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.4 Like the runaway-turned-lecturer, the abolitionist slave narrative’s exemplary black protocitizen was an antebellum phenomenon. In the genre’s first decade, however, its fugitive narrator was an unstable persona, easily confounded with the Africanist presence conjured by a white romancer like Poe or with a condemned black criminal such as Turner. The confusion lay as much in the new literary abolitionism’s transatlantic penal origins as in the slave narrative’s more local gallows provenance. Turning both fictional and autobiographical storytelling into antislavery propaganda, antebellum publicists injected Anglo-American abolitionism’s anxiety for appropriate punishment into a prose tradition historically concerned with the allocation of responsibility. The result, in Jacksonian America, was a literature that, preoccupied with penality and answerability, employed extended prose narrative to evoke a continuous, individual, and, above all, responsible black civil self. Twenty years on, with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this convergence would resonate powerfully with readers on both sides of the Atlantic (and, indeed, around the world). Initially, however, it risked compromising a movement whose representative 166 Chapter 4 black subject recounted a first-person story of crime and punishment that bore an uncanny resemblance to the confessions so long attributed to condemned criminals of color. Throughout this period, the temporal progression so essential to narrative remained instrumental to the apportionment of blame. In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke observes that “personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness , whereby it becomes concerned and...


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