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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 454-458

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Book Review

Romanticism and Slave Narratives:
Transatlantic Testimonies

Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies by Helen Thomas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism 38. Pp. xi + 332. $59.95 cloth.

In Helen Thomas's often illuminating and trenchant monograph, "Romanticism is recontextualized against a broader canvas of cultural exchanges, geographical migrations and displaced identities" (5). The task she sets herself is to place the African Diaspora and its consequences as central to the national [End Page 454] and personal identities of canonical and non-canonical figures at the heart of Romanticism. She uses the apparatus of postcolonial theories to further her project describing a creolization and a hybridity as central to the self-realization of diasporan Africans in their writings. At its most radical in the work of Robert Wedderburn, "the 'creolised' discourse of fluidity, heterogeneity, movement and change demarcated an illuminating revision of established (static) concepts of power, possession and identity" (268). She neither labels the writings of diasporan Africans as pale European imitations or as deeply rooted Africanist texts, but shows how fundamentally bicultural they are. This move is not particularly new but its use in juxtaposition to Romanticism makes for dynamic, if sometimes controversial, interventions.

She describes the "mulatto as the radical agent of socioeconomic transformation" (262). There are problems with this approach though, as her championing of the radical nature of "mulatto discourse," in her discussion of the Jamaican-born radical, Robert Wedderburn tends to essentialize mixed race discourse in the same reductionist way African essentialism is prioritized in much Black Nationalist criticism. "Mulatto discourse" is not always radical, as the many mulatto slave traders in Africa and slave drivers in the Americas prove. Wedderburn's radicalism comes not merely from his mixed-race birth, but, I would argue, principally from a working-class background that led to his identifying class as an essential determinant of his radical politics. In this he was like his fellow radical and Cato Street conspirator, William 'Black' Davidson. Moreover, Thomas almost completely elides the Naval context of Wedderburn's radicalism, failing to cite Jesse Lemisch's pioneering work on Jack Tar (from 1968, republished 1993) or Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh's account (first published in article form in 1993) of a multi-racial mobile proletariat of which Wedderburn was a part. There is a whole historical context here that would have strengthened Thomas's argument. The focus is so much on the creolized and the hybrid in relation to the individual, that good old-fashioned working-class history and the thriving London black community is rather marginalized.

Apart from Wedderburn, whose appearance is most welcome, this monograph parades the usual suspects both from the European tradition and the African Diaspora. The only slave captain dealt with at length is John Newton. The pioneering work of Suzanne Schwartz (1995) has uncovered an interesting character in James Irving, a former surgeon working out of Liverpool in the 1780s. His journal and letters home could have provided a counterweight to Newton's eventual guilt about his role in the trade as Irving remained so convinced of slavery's justification that he continued in the trade even after he himself had been enslaved by Moors for a year. The absence of Irving is accompanied by other lacunae. The Narrative of Robert Adams (1816), which details his enslavement in North Africa in 1810, having been a free black in [End Page 455] America, could have provided useful evidence to buttress Thomas's claims about the complexities of hybridity and creolization. His experience of being taken for white because of his status as American, crucially affected the Moors' reaction to him and he used their uncertainty about his color to his own advantage. Thomas Jefferson is included but some of his most revealing writing on race is overlooked. For instance, his discussion of a black Venus pudique in an English garden could have provided must grist for the psycho-sexual reading of his racial ideology, but it is not even mentioned here (Winthrop Jordan had begun this work in...


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