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  • Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions by Geoffrey Sanborn
  • Ceceilia Parnther
PLAGIARAMA! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions. By Geoffrey Sanborn. New York: Columbia University Press. 2016.

Geoffrey Sanborn's Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions is a valuable addition to American literary criticism. Sanborn introduces William Wells Brown, the author of Clotel (1853), the first novel published by an African-American. Sanborn presents Brown as if the text were an autobiography, first as an author, abolitionist, and opponent of Frederick Douglass. Sanborn blends Brown's authorship and abolitionist [End Page 120] background seamlessly into a critical narrative of the widespread plagiarism found throughout his work. Sanborn's data collection identifies 87,000 instances of plagiarism in a canon of nearly 300 written works. Sanborn contends that the plagiarism was a clever, intentional, stylistic tool used by an author known for his showmanship to appeal to mass audiences. Beyond plagiarism, Sanborn offers a critical analysis of stylistic choices Brown used both in written text and as a prolific stage performer.

Through a review of selected text, performances, and published reviews, Sanborn is adept in identifying prevailing stylistic choices in many of Brown's most prolific works, including the promulgation of racial stereotypes, suggesting that this brand of minstrelsy allowed mixed audiences to preempt stereotypical jokes, therefore eliminating the uncomfortable ambiguity of a society curious, but not receptive, to directives of equality. In doing so, Brown is said to evoke a shared humanity, described by Sanborn as "the energy of racial stereotypes, the obstacles to an enjoyable interracial sociability, is rerouted into antiracist pleasure (p. 55)". The contrast of this position when compared to the work of Frederick Douglass, whose slave narrative and orations aggressively challenged the status quo, eschewing pleasantries and demanding equality. Sanborn makes mention of these differences in style several times throughout the text without lingering. It is his position that Brown's style goes beyond denouncing slavery and racism, noting "the attractional structure of his work affects those denunciations in ways we have not recognized (p. 80)".

These qualities also extend to the noted fetishism of a beautiful slave girl character, most notably referenced in Clotel, whose description of mixed race and pure demeanor can be found throughout Brown's works. While assigning no words or agency to this character, Sanborn describes Brown's description of the woman as many White authors of his time did, focusing on beauty, purity, and silence, rather than on the relationship between a slave/master or concubine/master. It is unclear if the omission of personality is presented to appeal to mass audiences, or if the inclusion of personality would be dangerous and personal, deviating from Brown's style. In all, Sanborn posits that Brown, understanding the need for shared humanity describes Brown's method using beauty as a unifier, having "a capacity to intensify our awareness of the kinds of relationships to the world that the artifice enables us to have." (p. 108) In doing so, Sanborn astutely argues the presence of the beautiful, light skinned slave girl represents the increasing power of white masters who committed rape.

Sanborn adeptly describes the tools and methods used by Brown to evoke emotion and support from widespread audiences. The author compares Brown's style to that of a variety show entertainer "channeling his energies into the production of extra touches, trick and untruth, a surplus of appearance." (p.64) Several comparisons are made between Brown and showman and circus founder P.T. Barnum. Sanborn capitalizes on this theatrical style to present Brown's works and the reception of his audience. This allows the reader to engage as if the information itself is a performance piece. In doing so, the reader is invited to question Brown's ability to remove himself from the stories he shared with abolitionist audiences. Sanborn finds the technique of lifting passages a careful decision to capture hearts and minds through vivid storytelling. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Sanborn's ability to weave in Brown's usage of related works both in the written word and performance art, much in the way that Brown himself may...


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pp. 120-121
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