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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 601-614

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Forum: Teaching Equiano's Interesting Narrative

History, Oratory, and God in Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Adam Potkay

Increasingly, college students are coming into contact with at least parts of the work generally recognized as the capstone of eighteenth-century black writing--The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. In doing so, they are rediscovering a work that once was very widely read. First published in London in 1789, The Interesting Narrative was in Equiano's lifetime--he died in 1797--something of a "best-seller," enjoying a host of British editions that made its author a wealthy man, as well as American, Dutch, German, and Russian piracies that attested to its international cachet. The book remained in print until the end of the 1830s. 1 After that, The Interesting Narrative was not reprinted in English, in its entirety, until 1969, when Paul Edwards published his two-volume facsimile of the first edition, with a magisterial Introduction and extensively researched notes. 2 Yet it was Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s 1987 paperback edition, The Classic Slave Narratives, which first made Equiano's narrative widely available. Since then, six more editions of or including Equiano have appeared, all of them at student-friendly prices, including the now standard edition of The Interesting Narrative produced by Vincent Carretta for Penguin (1995). 3 During the twelve year period 1987-1999, excerpts of Equiano's Narrative have also been added to the textbook anthologies of English, American, and African-American literature produced by Norton, Heath, Longman, and Blackwell.

Since we know that Equiano's Interesting Narrative is being taught, we may take this opportunity to ask: how do we teach it? What are, or might be, [End Page 601] aspects of its classroom value to teachers in the fields of eighteenth-century British and American literature and history, or African and African-American literature and history? With these concerns in mind, I offer a survey of the ways in which scholars and critics have written about Equiano over the past twenty years. The scholarly and critical literature is animated, I find, by three fundamental questions or points of contention. First, to what degree are historical and literary approaches to Equiano compatible? Conversely, to what extent are they at odds? Second, if we approach Equiano as primarily a literary text--and there are good reasons for doing so--what precisely is "literary" about it? To borrow the title of a recent conference panel, what constitutes "the category of 'literature' in literary study today?" 4 Third and last, what is the relationship between literature, as we now conceive it, and religion--in Equiano's case, the Calvinist Methodism he accepted and sought to promulgate?

In framing and pursuing each of these three questions, I will test the limits of poststructuralist and especially of postcolonial (or "post/colonial") theory against The Interesting Narrative. 5 I will argue that Equiano's narrative presupposes as a condition of its intelligibility a world very different from, and in many ways antagonistic to, the world inhabited by many of his recent critics: his is a Christian, an oratorical, and a colonial world. Postcolonial critics are apt to read back into the language of those colonized or displaced by empire signs of creolization, parodic subversion, or "talking back"--in Equiano's case, however, those signs are faint and all too easily exaggerated by those who, programmatically, seek them out.

The Competing Claims Of Literature And History

Teachers of social and political history typically rely on documentary sources, autobiographies or memoirs among them, that are presumed to have "veridicality," or truth to fact. 6 Autobiography is a literary genre, of course, but it is one from which even literature professors are apt to crave veridicality. Though wont to remark upon autobiography's rhetorical aims and representational selectivity, most literature professors still value the genre's relation to "what's really out there." Teachers, as well as their students, will assume prima facie that an autobiography, however...


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