In The Strangers Book, Lloyd Pratt has written an often engaging, original interpretation of (mostly) nineteenth-century African American men’s writing that challenges received readings and enriches the reader’s understanding by providing new contexts within which to interpret such texts. His methodology may be just as important as his findings. The book also reflects the current zeitgeist: a deep skepticism, due to entrenched racism, most visible in the criminal justice system but far from only there, in the possibility of community beyond racial, gender, and class boundaries and even in the project; an emphasis on difference over similarity; and a retreat into variously defined counter-communities, in reaction to a confrontation with a renewed white heteropatriarchal nationalism. Thus “stranger humanism,” or a reading of African American writings said to promote stranger humanism. What is “stranger humanism”? According to Pratt, in stranger humanism, “people discover their differences from one another, but they are barred from trying to appropriate or penetrate those differences. … This discovery of differences also forms the groundwork of democracy” (2). One’s shared strangerdom, as it were, becomes the ground of respecting one another. As Pratt argues, such stranger humanism is formulated in two bodies of work: Frederick Douglass’s writing and Les Cenelles, the first anthology of African American poetry, published in French in New Orleans in 1845. Pratt’s case for this turns out to be rather complicated (especially in the case of Douglass). It necessitates paying attention to the “literary-formal practices adopted in the writing of these men” which “indicate the centrality of multiparty disclosure and multiparty witness to their vision of stranger humanism” (2). That complication is also one of the strengths of Pratt’s slim but deeply researched volume: he pays attention to the material production of the text, print and publication regimes, readership and implied audiences, typeface and citation mechanisms, historical and institutional context of texts, rhetorical features, philosophical implications, and often all at the same time. Occasionally, that may lead to terminological and conceptual overload, a common vice of literary scholarship—one could refer here to the sometimes awkward existentialist and Heideggerian vocabulary Pratt utilizes, consisting of phrases such as “stranger-with-ness,” “suspect-stranger-hood,” or “stranger-becoming,” but his approach has many rewards as it initiates an original look both at canonical texts as well as texts and textual practices often falling by the wayside, such as strangers books and the reprinting and editing of famous texts.
Pratt’s avowed enemies are a Eurocentric Enlightenment that takes the generic human to be a white man of European descent, “universalizing” his world-view and experiences, and the logic of sympathy and identification which he sees as one of (white) abolitionism’s shortcomings. “Sympathy,” he argues, tends to be condescending, and identification leads to the erasure of the person identified with and her substitution with the identifier. Chapter one, “The Making of Self-Evidence,” argues that reprinting practices of Andrew Jackson’s address “To the Free Colored Inhabitants of Louisiana” by different reprinters utilize the address towards different ends, and ultimately only African American uses of the text serve to make African American [End Page 79] humanity self-evident, in part through engaging in print practices that undermine the idea of a singular author since “[a]uthorial attribution that assigns responsibility, and therefore creative agency, to a single individual follows the framework of transactional selfhood” (43). As is evident from even this quotation, Pratt’s arguments rely on a number of suppositions that become clearer in chapter two, which argues that Douglass’s writing “posits credible experiences of strangerhood as pathways to a democratic community of the human emerging not from identification, but rather from open-ended scenes of encounter” (44). Pratt’s stranger humanism thus has something in common with poststructuralist reading practices and the never-ending cycle of interpretation, and he shows that Douglass rejects a static model of personhood with which one can identify in favor of a vision of ever-changing strangers that should accept and respect each other as such. Ultimately, Pratt makes this argument based on only three longer quotations from Douglass, but he interweaves it with a rich contextual framework, among them an extended reading of the “stranger” tradition in the Book of Leviticus.
Chapter three focuses on Les Cenelles, and here Pratt is at his best: his rich interpretations, based on ample textual evidence, of the practices of address in various poems reveal new layers of political meaning in them, and one of his main arguments throughout the book, that authorial practices embracing stranger humanism insist on open-endedness and on an “I-to-we relation,” is at its most convincing. His claim at the end of the chapter, and throughout the book, is bold: “There is no access to life as a pure singularity. There is only stranger-with-ness, suspect-stranger-hood, or some other way of being a stranger-in-relation” (91). Stranger humanism is thus claimed to be the only proper way of approaching life, texts, and, as his chapter four, “The Abundant Black Past” insists, history. Thus, chapter four takes a detour through Edward P. Jones’s The Known World to show that stranger history is—or should be—the only approach to writing history, and it sees the encounter with the past as an analogue to strangers’ encounters with each other—the past, like the stranger, cannot be fixed and is open to endless reinterpretations in the future. Pratt comes very close to questioning some of his own assumptions in this chapter as he approvingly paraphrases Jacques Rancière, who argues that intellectuals should function only “as a medium of proletarian comment,” and that any “concerns over mediation and identification turn out to be a screen against contending with the more serious work of figuring out how to do justice to a past intelligence … without fetishizing their alterity in relation to the present” (94). In relation to the past, then, mediation, and thus communication and understanding, and identification appear to be possible—so why not in relation to others in the present? The chapter makes a strong case, however: that African American historians and writers of fiction, past and present, often chose a totalizing and global approach to history rather than a parochial and partial micro-narrative, somewhat counterintuitively, since the gaps in the archive of African American history are better approached through a totalizing view that attempts to interpret history as a whole. Chapter five, “How to Read a Strangers Book,” presents an ingenious reading of strangers books as some nineteenth-century institutions kept them, in part by comparing them to registers of free colored persons in Louisiana. As much as both attempt to reduce the stranger to something lesser than the person keeping the registers, by listing the stranger’s relations to other people, such books admit to the personhood—to the “coming-into-being,” as Pratt says—of the very people they aim to reduce. Pratt implies that this methodology of reading strangers books, registers, and other textual information against their grain may well have wider applicability: “Approach it as a place of suspect-stranger making, that is what it will be; approach it as a place of strangerbecoming, that is what it will be” (127). Pratt’s epilogue, “Stranger Literature,” asks questions about the boundaries, if any, of literature, and whether an approach to literature is possible that applies a kind of moral principle, “separating the literary wheat from the antihumanist chaff.” [End Page 80]
Some questions remained for me after reading this always deeply thoughtful, learned, and provocative book: Is Frederick Douglass, whose literary fame rests on his autobiographies, really invested in “stranger humanism”? Is not autobiography as a genre based on the conviction that it is possible, through imagination and empathy (not sympathy), to relate oneself to another? Pratt takes it for granted that in “seeking to bridge an unbridgeable gulf of experience, the reader narcissistically substitutes herself for the enslaved, and the enslaved person undergoes a form of political erasure” (57). But why would that be so? Would a reader really believe that it is she who experienced slavery instead of the author? And if experience cannot be communicated, why bother writing an autobiography? No author or reader claims that text substitutes for experience—and substitution, in any case, is not the point of communication. Pratt’s approach has some commonalities with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics in Truth and Method in that both examine the possibility of understanding across time and “otherness” as mediated by texts, except that Gadamer appears somewhat more optimistic about bridging gaps of understanding through becoming conscious of one’s own presuppositions. Lloyd Pratt’s book, however, forces the reader to confront his or her own presuppositions about nineteenth-century African American literature, about the philosophical basis of (political) community, about what literature is and how to read it, and even if one ends up not always agreeing with his conclusions, it makes one examine one’s own further, and one cannot ask much more of a book.