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Biography 24.1 (2001) 215-225

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Footprints Of The Fugitive: Slave Narrative Discourse And The Trace Of Autobiography

Lynn A. Casmier-Paz

The fugitive slave narratives that were published between 1760 and 1865 concern the past sufferings, escape, and freedom of a former slave. 1 Although they are currently vital to the revision of historical knowledge regarding American slavery and the slave community, they can also be used to revise the fundamental rules and assumptions which constitute the limits and functions of autobiography. That is, although the narratives are considered "autobiographical," the theories with which we understand autobiography are only problematically useful for understanding these historical texts.

Historians have found that fugitive slave narratives are essential for understanding slave experience, yet the narratives resist the representational function of writing with which autobiography theory has constructed the genre's availability to historical understanding. 2 This study brings critical theories about writing and signification to bear upon the language and readings of selected fugitive slave narratives to examine how autobiography theory is implicated in the reproduction of historical and cultural beliefs about writing, representation, and identity. The fugitive slave narratives often resist such beliefs, and therefore highlight the paradoxical and problematic use of autobiography to understand experience, and the use of autobiography theory in the context of historical life writing. This examination of the fugitive slave narratives' resistance to autobiography theory seeks to expand the current field of knowledge about life writing, which is possible when we examine the extent to which slave narratives prefigure post-modernism's trace of the lost subject.

The subject of autobiographical writing--the life or identity of the author--forms a fundamental orientation for autobiography theory. In order to establish the grounds for understanding autobiographical writing, theorist Philippe Lejeune has identified a "contractual obligation" for the genre. Yet slave narratives resist such formalized contracts through discursive [End Page 215] manipulations distinctive to the historical contexts within which they were written. The contractual obligation is Lejeune's "autobiographical pact," which he says is "the affirmation in the text of [the author's] identity, referring back in the final analysis to the name of the author on the cover" (14). The proper name of the author, according to Lejeune, refers "not to a person, [but to] a person who writes and publishes . . . straddling the world-beyond-the-text" (11). The name on the text's cover, which is also the name behind the "I" of the autobiographical narrative, seals a contractual obligation between the writer and the reader.

I cite Lejeune's theory for its "quasi-legalistic language of contracts, rights, obligations, promises, expectations, and pacts" (Olney, "Autobiography" 17-18). Such legalistic language foregrounds the problematic historical position of the fugitive slave narratives, and reveals the texts' paradoxical position as autobiographies. For in the case of fugitive slave narratives, the "autobiographical pact" is a contractual obligation that cannot be upheld. Moreover, if the "life" of autobiography, its "bios," is a reader's realization of the writer's "consciousness, pure and simple," then the "atemporal . . . vertical thrust from consciousness down into the unconscious" produces relative degrees of depth in the constitution of autobiography as a genre (Olney, "Some Versions" 239). The initial plunge occurs upon the surface of the proper name. Slave narratives, however, repeatedly refuse the contractual obligation. The name on the cover may not be the same as the "author's," or even the text's protagonist. And in the case of slave narratives, the proper name--of critical importance to Lejeune--is most often the patronymic of a slaveowner. The proper name of the fugitive slave is rarely the same as the name of the text's "I," and it is usually a name which does not seal an autobiographical pact, but a bill of sale. For this reason fugitive slave narratives can tactically manipulate a reader's interpretation through assertion of multiple names and multiple identities.

A clear illustration of slave narratives' tactical manipulation of the proper name occurs in the Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). The problem of...


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