Thursday, October 8, 2015

Slave narratives, African American print culture, and MELUS

The articles by Samantha M. Sommers and Michaël Roy in our special issue of MELUS gave me opportunities to think about slaves narratives. We often think about the content of the narratives and what they mean in terms of struggles for liberation. Sommers and Roy placed the narratives in the content of print culture and book history.

In “Harriet Jacobs and the Recirculation of Print Culture,” Sommers highlights how early black writers re-presented “contemporary print culture in an effort to disrupt a conception of African American print culture as something limited to materials, processes, and products.” Sommers explains how “the recirculation and strategic elision of printed documents in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl demonstrates the transformation of Jacobs's relationship to print.”

Particularly notable for me, Jacobs chose to present and at the same time rework the slave wanted ad that her former master had previously printed about her. In this regard, Sommers reveals how Jacobs was actively engaging and rewiring aspects of black print culture.

In "Cheap Editions, Little Books, and Handsome Duodecimos: A Book History Approach to Antebellum Slave Narratives," Roy utilized a book-history perspective to show that slave narratives by James Williams (1838), Frederick Douglass (1845), and Solomon Northup (1853) "differed greatly in both formal and cultural terms." Roy goes on to note that:
By examining how these texts were published and circulated, I show that generalizations about antebellum slave narratives—slave narratives as bestsellers, as directed toward a Northern white audience, as a distinct genre recognizable by all—distort the complex history of this literary tradition. I argue that acknowledging the heterogeneous nature of what we usually perceive as a homogeneous whole gives us a better sense of how these texts might have been variously received and consumed in the decades preceding the Civil War.
Roy's work really helps us understand  the limits of genre-labels, in this case the very notion of "slave narratives." Sure, we'll continue to use that term, but taking a book history approach does assist us in considering the differences between slave narratives and slave narratives.

Notebook on MELUS and African American Print Culture

No comments: