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  • Penman’s DevilThe Chirographic and Typographic Urgency of Race in the Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African
  • Mark Alan Mattes (bio)

When Ignatius Sancho, an Anglo-African and former slave, died in 1780, editor Frances Crew assembled his extant letters (fig. 1). Crew worked with printer-publisher John Nichols to publish the first edition of Sancho’s correspondence under the title the Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African. In Two Volumes. To which are prefixed, Memoirs of his Life (1782). Earlier publications of Sancho’s correspondence with Laurence Sterne and the piqued curiosities of those who condescendingly saw him as a novelty likely fueled some demand for the Letters, but a great many subscribers were Britons engaged in the growing tide of abolitionist and antislavery sentiments that escalated during the closing decades of the eighteenth century.1 The urgency in producing this collection lay in these Britons’ desire to represent a black man as a reasoning, feeling, civilized being who would be accessible to white audiences. According to her editorial note, Crew hoped to demonstrate “that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to an European; and the still superior motive, of wishing to serve his worthy family” (4). Crew believed this demonstration would do much to counter doubts about the humanity and the mental capacities of African men and women.2

In light of the overt connections Sancho and his readers made among race, ethnicity, and the physical materials of writing, printing, and reading, it is surprising that more scholars have not explicitly brought the concerns of book history and media studies to bear on the Letters.3 Leon Jackson and Joseph Rezek have made similar observations about the relative lack of intellectual exchange between book historians and scholars of their respective domains, African American culture and the Black Atlantic.4 A [End Page 577]

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Figure 1.

Frontispiece portrait of Ignatius Sancho from the 1782 edition.

Photo courtesy of The Newberry Library, Chicago. Call no. E5 S205.

clear expression of the neglect that they observe can be found, ironically, in literary critic Sukhdev Sandhu’s work on Sancho’s manuscript practices. In his analysis of Sancho’s orthography and punctuation, Sandhu cogently argues that his “dashes, digressions, and textual games” (“Ignatius Sancho: An African” 51) were a “means of sardonically critiquing contemporary racialist theory,” which held that dark-skinned African men and women were innately unable “to perform linear functions” (London Calling 39–40). Sandhu asserts that Sancho’s nonlinear style exposed the intellectual impoverishment of Enlightenment racism. Yet, despite his willingness [End Page 578] to credit the disruptive visual appearance of the orthography and punctuation as a “radical form” of protest, Sandhu elevates the virtuosity of verbal performances and deemphasizes the significance of material texts in his final assessment of the Letters’ political import, asserting that Sancho’s “literary criticism and philosophical passages … over and above the very existence of his book, forced proponents of negro inferiority” to reframe their critiques of black writing in terms of aesthetics (“Ignatius Sancho: An African” 70).

Sandhu’s elevation of verbal expressions over material texts is deeply problematic for two reasons. First, “the very existence of [Sancho’s] book” could lead to what Rezek has recently described as “hierarchical thinking about race” (“Print Atlantic” 33). Rezek reminds us that “the texts of the print Atlantic come to us mediated through institutions of dissemination, institutions to which authors … often found themselves subject and in which, rarely, they wielded considerable power” (39). This state of subjection is especially true of the posthumous Letters. Producers and consumers often used its paratexts5—the print materials, reviews, and editorial apparatus that accompanied the printed volumes and their reception—to racially inscribe Sancho’s body and construct him as an emblem for the intellectual and moral abilities of all African men and women.6

The second problem with Sandhu’s reading is that Sancho’s “intertwining of linguistic and” material content provides as important a counter to racist dismissals of his letters as any piece of literary criticism or philosophy (McGann 13). The multiple print editions of the Letters, as archives of Sancho’s...