Slavery and the Literary Imagination, by Deborah E. McDowell et al (eds.)
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989): 168 pages

Reviewed by Masami Sugimori


As the editors say that this anthology helps readers "follow the evolution of important aspects of the interplay between slavery and the American literary imagination" (Introduction, x), the seven articles in this volume, diverse in their focus and critical methods, intertwine with each other to constitute an American literary history in terms of (re-)representation of the "peculiar institution." In questioning how the ticklish topic has been treated by both white and black writers, and how the "primary" examples of its articulation (such as Uncle Tom's Cabin) have later been appropriated discursively, the essays by Hortense J. Spillers and by William L. Andrews seem to be particularly useful.
Beginning her essay, "Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed," Spillers asserts that "'slavery'. . . remains one of the most textualized and discursive fields of practice" (29). Based on the belief that we cannot grasp the absolute truth of slavery but only access versions of rhetorical construction, her interest is in the narrative strategies the two novelists adopt to compose her/his own version. Through a feminist reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Spillers shows that "Stowe poses a purely local and quite particularistic notion as the place of an imagined and fictitious 'universality'" (37). Despite its claimed dependence on the "universal" values of Christianity, despite its "primary" position among slavery-related writings, Uncle Tom's Cabin is just a partial "arrangement" of discursive elements: for example, Stowe's narrative, with its "requirements of sacrifice" from her black and/or female characters, "galvanize[s] the murderous instincts of patriarchal, phallogocentric synthesis" (40). As an Afro-American literary critic, Spillers also examines the possible effects of the "discursive slavery" upon the "actual" reading experience of blacks. Drawing upon the semiological notion of icon, she insightfully analyzes Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada and reveals that the "Slave Hole Café" scene "works as a self-consciously stylistic manipulation of signs that re-encodes particular graphic units to yield a radically different reading from a more conventional one" (49). Through the mocking appropriation of Stowe's discursive acts (which are, according to the critic, so repulsive for blacks), Reed suggests that the past can be reconstructed in the present context, and that there is always a possibility of cha(lle)nge--just like "Uncle Robin [who], in the manipulation of signs, changes the letter, which insurgent act makes the world a different place" (55-56).
Andrews begins his essay, "The Representation of Slavery and the Rise of Afro-American Literary Realism, 1865-1920," by mentioning a metaphorical shift brought by the Emancipation: from Frederick Douglass's "the tomb of slavery" to Booker T. Washington's "the school of American slavery." (This "revision" of Douglass by Washington is also the main focus of James Olney's article in the volume.) By closely examining Afro-American autobiographical tradition, Andrews reveals the sociopolitical as well as discursive situation around the tradition which caused the radical change in its major parameters (e.g. representation of slavery). What antebellum slave narrators seek in their autobiography, Andrews argues, is "an ideal of freedom, a condition in which one may liberate the essential self within through expressive action and the power of the word" (65). On the other hand, Washington and other "Tuskegean" writers who, writing in the post-war period, have no need to denounce the dehumanizing institution but to refute the racist view of "inferior blacks," "interpret and evaluate slavery according to its practical consequences in the real world of human action" (68) to prove the ex-slaves' economic competence. Washington's problematical emphasis on the deed rather than the word, realistic account of the "truth" (i.e. biography) rather than romantic representation, is the very target of exploitation in Charles W. Chesnutt's and James Weldon Johnson's fictive autobiographies. According to Andrews, the whole process of transition in Afro-American autobiographical tradition suggests the black writers' claim for the "right to reappropriate the signifying potential of black reality and, through what we might call deconstructive acts, prepare the discursive ground once again for a new assay of the basis on which a usable truth could be constructed" (76). This argument is very telling, but, in view of the dilemma Washington felt about "the signifying potential" which is to be activated by the word, I have some reservations about Andrew's a little too reductive conclusion.
As we can see from these two examples, each of the articles in this anthology demonstrates, or at least suggests, that the sociopolitical struggle is inseparable from the discursive one: the struggle for one's own "truth"--literary or historical--of slavery, which has been essential particularly for blacks to change their present situation, is observed not only within but also as discourse. Therefore it may be natural that, following the representational history of Uncle Tom's Cabin, we cannot help noticing that even those versions which are supposed to be "innocent" (e.g. children's books) are politically loaded.

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