- The Heroic Slave/Frederick Douglass: A Cultural and Critical Edition ed. by Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, John R. McKivigan
Edited by robert s. levine, john stauffer, and john r. mckivigan
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015
It’s strange to be applauding the first critical edition of Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave, originally published in 1853, in 2016. How is it possible that no one has produced a critical edition, or even a stand-alone edition, of this novella before now? The Heroic Slave is the only work of fiction by the most celebrated and widely read African American writer of the nineteenth century; it is the story of one of the most publicized and influential slave narratives in US history; it offers an extraordinary example of African American literary culture at a time that most people associate only with slave narratives; and it is short enough, at roughly fifty pages, to fit neatly into any syllabus, while rich enough that any teacher will want to devote more than a single class to it. This could and should be a centerpiece of any number of courses on American literature and history, and it would be a reasonable and productive addition to a number of other courses as well. In fact, though, The Heroic Slave was largely forgotten until 1975, when Philip S. Foner included it in the Supplement to his five-volume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Of course, Douglass’s most famous work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, was itself largely forgotten for many years until it was reprinted in 1960. But whereas now there are dozens of editions of the Narrative, it has remained impossible to include The Heroic Slave in a course without using an edition that also brings in other texts, either by Douglass or by other writers.
Even if it were only a reasonably competent edition, then, a scholarly stand-alone edition of The Heroic Slave would be a welcome event, but [End Page 473] the one before us is much more than merely competent. Emerging from the ongoing Frederick Douglass Papers project at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, this edition of The Heroic Slave has benefited from the collaborative efforts of three of the best Douglass scholars working today: Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John R. McKivigan. With an authoritative text, informative introduction, expert annotations, and a rich selection of contextual and critical materials, this edition of The Heroic Slave should finally establish Douglass’s brilliant novella as one of the must-read texts of American literary history. In doing so, this edition will make it possible for The Heroic Slave to have the provocative and illuminating influence over current discussions of race and history that it is capable of having.
Like other African American writers of his time, Douglass realized that fiction could get at truths that might otherwise never enter the historical record, and the story of the Creole mutiny, to which The Heroic Slave is devoted, is a perfect example of why a reliance on fiction was necessary. In 1841, the slaves aboard the Creole, being shipped from Richmond, Virginia, to the slave-trading market in New Orleans, rose in revolt, took control of the ship, and took refuge in the Bahamas, where eventually all of the slaves aboard, including the mutineers, were freed by British authorities. The most successful slave revolt in US history, and with the Amistad (1839) case so recently behind, the Creole rebellion focused international and domestic tensions over slavery that played out in part in the press. The fact that the leader of this mutiny, Madison Washington, carried in his name the echoes of the nation’s founding only further charged the developing narratives. Hero, or threat to the social order? How is this story to be told? And how might one account for the many biased perspectives, the misinformation, the partial truths and flat-out misrepresentations that characterized an event that was, like virtually all controversial events, both spectacularly known and still somehow unknowable? Douglass’s response was to...