- Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies and the Unfinished Work of Emancipation
Among Emancipation's many ironies is that it led organized abolitionism to relinquish control over the technology, which enabled the marginal movement's profound influence on antebellum America: print. Disagreeing among themselves whether their work for the enslaved ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, the war, the Reconstruction Amendments, or not at all, antislavery activists formally disbanded in 1860s and 1870s. In the process, Julie [End Page 223] Roy Jeffrey demonstrates, they lost not only a well-tested organizational base from which to agitate for racial justice but, just as important, the privileged access to print that for so long let them shape public opinion.
Building on work on post–Civil War cultural memory by David W. Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and Nina Silber, Jeffrey shows how, through both published personal narratives and collective commemorative acts, abolitionists "struggled against the creation of what they saw as a false and dangerous understanding of the past" and thus "challenged every important point of the reconciliation narrative" outlined by these scholars (3). United in their efforts to wrest control over the emerging history of the antebellum United States, these ever-fractious reformers achieved no new consensus after the war. Kirk Savage, Jennifer L. Eichstedt, and Stephen Small have attuned us to racialized commemoration in postwar monuments and museums; Jeffrey elucidates similar dynamics in far less substantial but equally enduring print artifacts.
Although some of Jeffrey's key texts have been mined for decades by scholars of the antebellum antislavery movement—Samuel J. May's Some Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict (1869) and William Still's The Underground Rail Road (1872) will be familiar—others by the likes of ex-slave John Quincy Adams, free black Southerner John Malvin, or white reformers Lucy N. Colman and Elizabeth Buffum Chace are downright obscure, having been published regionally, by subscription, or in small runs. A comparative, sequential survey of autobiographical accounts covering roughly the same historical period, events, and issues regrettably, if unavoidably, involves a degree of tedium. Acknowledging her sources' tendency to be diffuse and long-winded, Jeffery disclaims "extended literary analysis" (8). But a rare instance of such interpretive probing suggests that even the most prosaic texts repay readings that move beyond paraphrase. In Acts of the Antislavery Apostles (1883), Parker Pillsbury, having led a pilgrimage to abolitionist Nathaniel Rogers's unmarked grave, answers the inevitable queries about the absent headstone by insisting that such men "need no monuments reared by other hands than their own" (195). However reassuring the sentiment, Jeffrey astutely notes, "at the heart of Pillsbury's work was the threat of national forgetfulness" that menaced all abolitionists, to varying degrees, after the war (196). Even if most could not hold a pen to Frederick Douglass and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, surely their personal stories offer more such revealing moments.
The study's greatest contribution is its reconstruction of the publication contexts, strategies, and constraints shaping the composition, circulation, and reception of abolitionist autobiography. This archival work supports Jeffrey's own persuasive narrative of how the very decades that saw organized [End Page 224] abolitionism lose control of its massive and highly efficient print propaganda machine also witnessed the rise of a new print-generated myth of the Old South. Jeffrey's carefully documented publishing history thus helps to clarify the well-known literary-historical shift that occurred over the course of the nineteenth century. One cannot help wondering why Jeffrey passed up the opportunity to bring the many strands of her analysis together in reading of what may well be the most vexing postwar memoir penned by an abolitionist, William Wells Brown's devastatingly tricksterish Plantation School burlesque, My Southern Home (1880). Although Wells's bizarre follow-up to his 1847 Narrative does not travel with the former fugitive into the abolitionist North (thereby perhaps explaining the book's neglect here), it does recount Emancipation and Reconstruction. In Wells's disconcerting memoir would seem to eddy all...