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  • Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave
  • Kari J. Winter
William L. Andrews and Regina E. Mason, eds. Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 145 pp. $74.00 cloth/$15.25 paper.

In October 1991 Regina Mason, a housewife with two young children, decided to pursue her lifelong interest in a personal family history that seemed at odds with the American narratives about "race" that she heard from mainstream media on the one hand and the Black Power movement on the other. She "took up genealogy as a hobby and soon after began pairing its methods with books on abolition and the Underground Railroad" (126). This hobby grew into a rigorous scouring of archives across the United States and led her to one of the greatest treasures imaginable: an ancestor, William Grimes, who had written one of the earliest extant memoirs of slavery. She also happened to cross paths with one of the premier scholars of slave narratives, [End Page 509] William L. Andrews, who encouraged her to publish her findings in this carefully researched and richly documented edition of the Life of William Grimes.

As Andrews observes, "William Grimes (1784-1865) authored the first fugitive slave narrative in American history in 1825, when he was slightly over forty years of age. The longest African American autobiography published up to that time, the Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Written by Himself was motivated not so much by a reformist impulse as by personal financial need" (3). Andrews's introduction incisively places Life of William Grimes within the literary and cultural history of slavery, resistance, and abolition. He zeroes in on many unusual, provocative passages and ironies. Born in King George, Virginia in 1784 to an enslaved woman (unnamed in the memoir), Grimes is the son of Benjamin Grymes, Jr., of the Fitzhugh clan, one of Virginia's wealthiest planter families. Grimes grows into a strong, tall, resourceful man who, like a hero or anti-hero in the picaresque tradition, plays a robust role in shaping his life against the social grain. Offering no explanation for where, when, or how he became literate, Grimes recounts his experiences under each master in an episodic manner, emphasizing his own honesty, hard work and outrageously unjust suffering. His masters alternate between an awareness of how much they depend on and benefit from Grimes's skillful labor and a compulsion toward suspicion and vicious abuse that the system of slavery makes inevitable. Predicated upon and sustained by brute force, slavery serves as an incubator for all of humanity's worst capacities, while poisoning the human potential for openness, honesty, trust, generosity, and justice. Grimes maneuvers into the good graces of his masters as well as he can, often engaging in violent struggles with other slaves who often steal from him, lie about him, and vie with him for their master's favors. His staunchly unromantic representations of relations among slaves provide a useful corrective to our tendency to imagine that suffering makes people virtuous. Time and again, when he can no longer tolerate a particular master, Grimes devises ways to get sold to a new master. His memoir provides illuminating glimpses into the inner workings of several of the most prominent households in post-Revolutionary Virginia, including Monticello and Montpelier. He also offers an inside view of the horrors of Southern slave jails.

After enduring eight or ten different masters in Virginia and Georgia, Grimes, assisted by a crew of sailors, escapes aboard a ship bound from Savannah to New York. Upon safe arrival in New York, he walks to New Haven, Connecticut, where he is hired by a free black businessman who owns a livery stable. The situation might strike readers as ideal, but Grimes comments bluntly: "He set me at work in a ledge of rocks, getting out stone for building. This I found to be the hardest work I had ever done, and began to repent that I had ever come away from Savannah, to this hard cold country" (85). Like Jeffrey Brace, who had been enslaved in Connecticut in the 1760s and '70s and then lived to a ripe old age...


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