- American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture by Audrey Fisch, and: Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 by Marcus Wood (review)
- Victorian Review
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 27, Number 2, 2001
- pp. 75-89
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Review Essay Audrey Fisch, American Slavesin Victorian England:AbolitionistPolitics in PopularLiterature andCulture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. ? + 139. Marcus Wood, BlindMemory: VisualRepresentationsofSkvery in England andAmerica, 1780-1865. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. xxi + 341. "Our cultures will never know what 'really happened' to the people who endured slavery," yet as Marcus Wood's brief catalogue in the opening to BlindMemory attests, we have inherited a variety of representations that purport to tell us something about it (8). We look, exhibit, read in the belief that we will come to know: We may exhibit and look at artefacts, read lists of cargo, ship tonnages, the entries in punishment books, display caricatures , or paintings or models of slave ships, or the memorabilia of slave torture. There is abolition propaganda focused on anonymous slave sufferers, or on white personalities who spearheaded the abolition movements. There are grand narratives on large academic canvases, and there are heroic sculptures and friezes. __ There are tragic little narratives encased within the texts of runaway slave advertisements. The question remains: are any of these things adequate, or even decent, memory tools? . . . [F]or each slave the experience was unrepeatable, irreducible and unreproducable: all human suffering exists beyond the vulgarity of the simulacrum (8). Indeed, as Wood goes on to document through a startling visual archive ten years in the collecting, the simulacrum has been our focus for over two hundred years and the "anonymous slave sufferer" Victorian Review (2001) 75 Review Essay this archive's primary subject. Visual representations of slavery, he argues, have been not just myopic but blind, rendering them deeply problematic tools of knowledge or memory. While Wood cautions against the desire to use the visual as a way into what "really happened" to the enslaved, Audrey Fisch works to return her reader to white, middle-class Victorian culture and its interests in American slavery, Uncle Toms, and fugitive slaves. Fisch takes as her ostensible focus for American Slaves in Victorian Englandthe mid-century "African-American abolitionist campaign," reading Victorian anxieties over "class and gender; . . . the integrity of the English character; . . . and questions about the nation's identity" through newspaper and periodical reviews of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and responses to its commercialization, the anonymous Uncle Tom in England, the as-told-to narrative of John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia, and the lecture tours of Henry "Box" Brown and Sarah Parker Remond (4-5). However, we might argue that this interest in what American slaves in England can tell us of mid-Victorian social concerns effectively silences the work of African American abolitionists. Indeed, Fisch pessimistically casts African American abolitionists as "powerless" in the face of the periodical press ready to recoup popular interest in American slavery into narratives of English national superiority to which she pays much more attention. Similarly, critical analysis of white British or American visual representations of slavery dominate BlindMemory. In very different ways, then, both studies present the reader with a record of slavery rendered blind and silenced by a white English and North American interest in the "vulgarity of the simulacrum," a preference for sentiment and sensation. BlindMemory andAmerican Slaves in Victorian Englandthus also importantly underscore the state of scholarship on representations of the "peculiar institution" and its abolition. The field consists of far more studies of white abolitionists than black, and has paid much attention to a complicated white interest in images of enslavement. Partly resulting from this attention, the study of slave narratives and their popularity with white readers on both sides of the Atlantic continues 76volume 27 number 2 Review Essay to dominate the field. With slave narratives as a notable exception, we have a nascent sense of what black abolitionists were saying on tour in England and in lectures to white audiences in the United States, to other reform movements, or to largely African American audiences. And while we have an ever-developing understanding of what white pro-slavery interests and abolitionists had to say about slavery to one another and to an interested white public—be it in narrative, photographs or other visual art—we are only beginning to study how artists of African descent not only represented slavery but...