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  • Print, Writing, and the Difference Media MakeRevisiting The Signifying Monkey after Book History
  • Joseph Rezek (bio)

Consider two familiar frontispieces. Phillis Wheatley at the table, chin in one hand, quill in the other, eyes turned away from us, fixed in a contemplative upward gaze (fig. 1). She is at work on a manuscript—piously, perhaps, or inspired by more secular muses—and an inkwell and closed book lay ready to hand. Clothed in the attire of a “Negro Servant,” as the surrounding border puts it, how different she looks from Olaudah Equiano, in ruffles and a great coat. “We see an African dressed as an English gentleman,” Vincent Carretta has observed of Equiano’s frontispiece, and one who defiantly stares at the reader (Equiano 280). Equiano holds an open Bible, and as he thrusts the printed book forward he invites us to consider its lessons as precedent and echo of his own (fig. 2). Contrasts between the two images are evident along the axes of gender, class, and social status; Wheatley demurs and remains enslaved, while Equiano, daring his readers, is nominally free. But one difference stood out for me after rereading Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (1988)—ironically, in fact, because this influential book provides few conceptual tools for us to notice or understand it. Wheatley’s frontispiece dramatizes a scene of writing (quill, manuscript, inkwell), while Equiano’s signals the power of print—because traces of the press are part of its spectacle. In The Signifying Monkey, Gates explores rhetorical figures that turn on the tension between the spoken and the written word, a tension he places at the center of black vernacular discourse and the centuries-old literary tradition it inspired. And yet despite his sustained emphasis on the mediating nature of language, Gates conflates the medium of handwriting with the medium of print—the technology [End Page 891] of marking words with a pen on paper (once per iteration) and the technology of fixing impressions on paper with moveable type (over and over again).

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Figure 1.

Frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), by Phillis Wheatley. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

On the surface this difference seems trivial, especially for a literary study so deeply inspired by oral modes of verbal expression and linguistic play. The difference matters enormously, however, for the group of texts assembled in the chapter of The Signifying Monkey that has been most influential for those working in the early period, “The Trope of the Talking Book.” In what follows, I consider the implications of that chapter’s elision of the difference media make. I write as a scholar participating in a widespread effort to reinterpret African American literature from the perspective of media specificity, one grounded in a long tradition of editorial scholarship and animated recently through a number of conferences, symposia, and collaborative publications.1 My interest in the difference between [End Page 892] writing and print, encapsulated for the moment in the Wheatley and Equiano images, has been inspired by the fundamental questions this scholarly community has been asking about the early black archive—old questions, no doubt, about “black messages” and “white envelopes” (Sekora), and what Robert Stepto called the “medley of voices” in published slave narratives (10)—but with new answers invested less in racial authenticity than in the puzzling complexities of print culture. Revisiting The Signifying Monkey in this way admittedly leaves aside a number of interesting topics we might consider upon the publication of the book’s twenty-fifth-anniversary edition—namely, its role in helping to legitimize the study of African American literature, its controversial deployment of deconstruction in order to do so, and the scholarly allusions and disagreements

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Figure 2.

Frontispiece to The Interesting Narrative (London, 1789), by Olaudah Equiano.

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

[End Page 893]

Gates’s early writings have inspired since the mid-1980s. Instead of asking how much The Signifying Monkey has meant to scholars in the past, this essay asks the perhaps more...


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