Blind Memory: Visual Representation of Slavery in England and America, and: American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture (review)
- Research in African Literatures
- Indiana University Press
- Volume 33, Number 4, Winter 2002
- pp. 217-219
- Additional Information
Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 217-219
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Visual Representation of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865
American Slaves in Victorian England:
Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture
Blind Memory: Visual Representation of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865, by Marcus Wood. New York: Routledge, 2000. 341 pp. ISBN 0-415-92698-X paper.
American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture, by Audrey Fisch. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 139 pp. ISBN 0-521-66026-2 cloth.
Both these books aim to interrogate overly facile suppositions about the meaning of slavery and Abolition in transatlantic culture. For Marcus Wood, there has been too little attention paid to the iconography accompanying the rhetoric. It has been taken for granted as mere visual accompaniment to the searing anti-slavery texts. After Wood's labors, particularly in foregrounding the manifold and contradictory meanings of the illustrations to the slave narratives, it will never be taken for granted again. His magisterial study moves seamlessly from fine art, through book illustration to propaganda prints, showing the power of such images as the 1789 Description of a Slave Ship, which acted as "a semiotic shock tactic" to a variety of audiences (27). His discussion of visual texts such as J. M. W. Turner's oft-misread Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (1840) are multifaceted and innovative, showing how painting can perform "an act of artistic salvage" (63). Sometimes the critique of the reception of such works is rather po-faced. No more so than in its indictment of Mark Twain's reaction to Turner's "nauseous" colors. Twain's railing at the vulgarity of the painting is used by Wood to hint at the Southerner's inability to come to terms with the painting's subject matter. Coming at the very time (1875) when Twain was contemplating early drafts of his controversial (and I would contend defiantly anti-slavery) masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), such criticism is rather partial. The po-faced nature of the text is illustrated as well by Wood's discussion of John Stedman's Narrative of a Five Year's Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Here Wood quotes at length a torture scene that Blake illustrates where a rebel is broken on the rack and dismembered. The elaborate joking by the dying victim is not, as Wood contends, "simply incredible" (234); it could also be said to mock a system that deals in human flesh and suggests a counter-hegemonic discourse that sometimes bursts through Stedman's conservative text.
In dealing with transatlantic figures, there are curious British omissions. Mary Prince, for instance, is strangely elided in Wood's curiously all-American take on the slave narrative tradition. Moreover, the great radical Robert Wedderburn (1761-1835?) is not even mentioned, even though it is his type of working-class multiracial radicalism that is railed against in some of the George Cruikshank prints that Wood discusses. By leaving [End Page 217] figures like him out of the discussion, Wood's study is prone to present his material through the lens of too-narrow an audience. He contends that "the slave and the factory worker do not easily occupy a common rhetorical ground" (274). Radicals like Wedderburn, however, had in their activism (indeed in their rhetoric) yoked together the plight of factory hands enslaved by industrialism at home and sailors impressed into hard labor on the sea together with the slaves on the plantations. Such a rhetoric was designed to expose the sham of a middle-class abolitionism that merely wanted to help the "dear blacks" and lacked a class analysis. It might not have been the dominant voice of the period, but it deserves to be given credit even in discussing pro-slavery images that critiqued the sentimentalism of abolitionists by foregrounding their lack of concern
for the British industrial poor. Wood's contention that...