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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 620-624

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Forum: Teaching Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Domesticating Equiano's Interesting Narrative

Roxann Wheeler

"The eighteenth century as a whole remains obstinately out of fashion," Pat Rogers lamented in the 1970s. 1 Over a decade later, that sentiment was the rallying cry of Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown's New Eighteenth Century (1987). Arguing that resistance to contemporary theory was at the heart of our marginalization within the larger field of English literature, Nussbaum and Brown called for a new interdisciplinarity to renovate teaching and research. 2 While there has not been a revolution in our scholarly methods since then, eighteenth-century studies has been energized by a critical return to issues originally raised in the social histories of England by A. S. Turberville, A. R. Humphreys, and Roy Porter. 3 Our field has also been invigorated by the introduction of new or previously overlooked facets of eighteenth-century life and literature, including studies of stage performance, consumerism, maternity, and sensibility. 4 These books demonstrate that national and even regional studies bear intimate connection to commercial and political events in France, North Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, East India, and North America. This wave of scholarship rightly assumes that neither eighteenth-century writers nor their world was bound by the island itself.

The expansion of interests in eighteenth-century literary studies is a distilled subtext of Adam Potkay's "History, Oratory, and God in Equiano's Interesting Narrative." Potkay's interest in reinvestigating religion and oratory seems on the face of it a necessary reminder that there remains much to rediscover about our period. 5 As many of us routinely tell our students, in a century with an enticing array of secular temptations, religious literature was more widely read than either travel writing, poetry, or novels: the Bible was the best selling and most widely debated book in England and Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress was the most popular work of fiction. 6 Arguably, it is the tension between religious belief and secular pursuits that is the most fascinating characteristic of the British Enlightenment. No doubt, reassessments of religion's role in everyday life and its relation to literary production and consumption, sexuality, sociability, nascent feminism, and colonialism will usher in a new era of scholarship.

While I value Potkay's suggestions for companion readings to Equiano's narrative, I do not endorse his dismissal of the suggestive findings of poststructuralist and postcolonial critics. 7 Besides providing us with astute interpretations of Equiano's ideological investments, these are the very critics who have assured The Interesting Narrative a secure position in our classrooms and scholarship. Potkay differs from these critics in that he wants to return English studies to a simpler, "purer" past, one that need not consider unequal relations of power in the eighteenth century or the politics of literary interpretation in the present, but one that features instead the tidiness of rhetorical power. 8

Potkay intimates that eighteenth-century conceptions of social mobility, masculinity, patriotism, and even racial ideology are somehow less historically appropriate to understanding Equiano's Interesting Narrative than rhetorical structures [End Page 620] of the Bible and classical oratory. In participating in the backlash against theory derived from Marxism, feminism, and civil rights, Potkay domesticates this political activist and former slave's narrative. 9 For example, if we focus primarily on biblical resonances in The Interesting Narrative, as Potkay proposes, we lose sight of an intriguing connection between Equiano's literary record of his faith and the institutional workings of the Church of England. 10

Situating Equiano within an emerging Methodism in Britain or even within the politics of proselytizing a Christian identity in the colonies enhances an examination of his rhetorical power rather than detracts from it. 11 In the eighteenth century, Christianity was one of the most powerful of all hegemonic forces. Possibly its most significant aspect was that it gave rise to both radical and reactionary ideology. One example of the conflict between personal and social modes of consciousness is the tension between Equiano's voluntary conversion...


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