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Helen Thomas. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521662346. Price: £37.50 (US$60).

  • Sophie Thomas

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  • Sophie Thomas
    University of Sussex

Helen Thomas's study of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century slave narratives situates them securely and persuasively at the meeting place of important cultural and political crosscurrents. The achievement of her book is to expose a network of illuminating connections between English, African, and transatlantic cultures in the period, and her approach is richly underwritten by a wide range of critical languages and concerns, drawn particularly from recent developments in Atlantic and postcolonial studies. Thomas situates emergent autobiographical genres and modes familiar from a number of canonical Romantic works (Wordsworth's Prelude, Coleridge's conversation poems)—with their redemptive and liberationist subtexts—in terms of discourses of dissent and enthusiasm in the eighteenth century. She argues for links between these texts and popular forms of spiritual autobiography, but also, in a wider cultural and political context, shows how they are related to the narratives of slaves from the African diaspora through a shared "discourse of the spirit."

Thomas's book displaces the centrality of the French and American revolutions for prevailing conceptions of Romanticism, and shows instead how a formative dialogue of exchange and negotiation between slaves and radical dissenting thought in England had an impact on debates surrounding civil and religious liberties. She posits and explores a central connection between disparate discourses of 'Romanticism' and narratives published in England by (ex)slaves in the years leading up to and immediately following, abolition. Her key terms—intersection, intervention, interaction—indicate the parameters of that transformative dialogue and offer a nuanced view of the "black Atlantic" during the period: cultural intertextuality is seen, in effect, to develop from cultural hybridity. The formation and configuration of identity under these conditions is a central concern and Thomas suggests that the slave narratives posited a "mulatto-discourse, a third, hybrid term which synchronised two distinct, and often antithetical, cultural ideologies" (175).

The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with political, literary, and autobiographical texts published in Britain by Romantic writers, abolitionists, and evangelical revivalists, the second with works, also published in England, by slaves of African descent. Early chapters offer an overview of Romanticism and abolitionism, and argue the link between radical dissent and spiritual autobiography. Thomas revisits the genealogy of eighteenth-century abolitionist texts, isolating for example the powerful strain that emerged from an emphasis on spiritual salvation, and on the inalienable rights of liberty and spiritual equality proper to all men. In its early phase, abolitionist protest comes not surprisingly from non-conformist groups—from Quakers, Shakers, Evangelicals, Methodists—and John Wesley's emphasis on "plain oracy and self-reflection" is seen "to provide an important model for literary expressions of identity employed by Methodists, Romantics, and slaves alike" (31). Interestingly, while all this challenged the ideology of slavery, it also introduced "revised forms of colonial expansionism, strategically premised upon the principles of missionary ideology" (42). And, needless to say, missionary aims reflected rather closely the political aims of British imperial ideology.

Spiritual narratives are shown here to offer an important literary paradigm for autobiographical testimony. Their key moments (conversion, spiritual rebirth, liberation from the yoke of the sinful self), and those of conversion narratives specifically (self-examination, childhood recollections, moments of transgression, repentance, (re)dedication to God's service, ecstatic release) lend themselves more widely to narratives of identity, polemic, and dissent. The form proves to be a versatile one, with the flexibility to accommodate excess and disorder. Thomas includes discussions of spiritual, autobiographical narratives that are clearly counter-hegemonic, such as the prophetic writings of Joanna Southcott, and others, such as John Newton (the converted slaver), whose ambivalent narrative of cross-cultural contact juxtaposes spiritual pilgrimage and slave trading. William Cowper's evangelical poetry, such as his Olney Hymns and The Task, is shown to adapt or even undermine the salvation crux by "translat[ing] the structural framework of the evangelical motif into a narrative of melancholic excess" (70). In sum, deliverance narratives, whether those of sinners or of slaves, anticipate the autobiographical conversation genre developed by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and constitute an influence on the emergence of Romanticism that is frequently overlooked.

A number of familiar Romantic writers are considered against this backdrop, showing how abolitionist ideology—appropriated and then concealed (110)—can be seen to influence the predominant Romantic paradigm of the literary imagination. Though Wordsworth's attitude to abolitionism was ambivalent (113), his claims for the liberationist powers of the mind used terms translated from slave insurrection (the example here is his sonnet "To Toussaint L'Overture"). This redirection of emphasis toward the imagination—"'man's unconquerable mind'"—is apparent in Coleridge's conversation poems too (as in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," where captivity and liberation function only metaphorically), but Coleridge wrote and spoke out explicitly against the slave trade in, for example, his "Lecture on the Slave-Trade" given in Bristol in 1795, which Thomas discusses at some length. Another important figure here is Wollstonecraft, whose interventions on the questions of rights and freedoms interpret the problem of female subjugation explicitly in emancipatory terms drawn sympathetically from abolitionist discourse. Finally, Thomas offers an account of Blake's work and thought, which shows him to be a "perceptive critic" of both colonial and slave ideology, and "an adamant proponent of the value of the spiritual world" (114).

The second part of Thomas's book concentrates on the narratives and poetic texts of displaced Africans such as Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Jupiter Hammon, and Ottobah Gronniosaw. These narratives are shown to draw from, as well as to subvert, the paradigm of spiritual deliverance by transforming it into "a scheme of secular liberation and insurrection" (168). The work of these writers also preserves and displays, though by means of transformation and synthesis, aspects of "the pre-slavery cultural self" (158). In Equiano's Narrative, for example, elements of African belief systems are fused with elements of dissenting Protestantism. Thomas suggests that the writings of diasporan Africans could be read as "mulatto" texts: neither European nor Africanist, but thoroughly bi-cultural. Creolization and hybridity are thus important concerns in this section of the book, and are present perhaps most radically in the inclusion of Robert Wedderburn, whose work is shown to epitomize a "'creolised' discourse of fluidity, heterogeneity, movement and change [that] demarcated an illuminating revision of established (static) concepts of power, possession and identity" (268).

Thomas's lucid study, with its impressive range of source materials, makes it possible to read Romantic writing alongside the writing of blacks in British society during the period—and shows how the form of the slave narrative, so central an expression of the process of identity (trans)formation, is marked by inter-textual dialogue between Western and African culture. And yet, while her study shows clearly how similar influences can be seen at work in each case, the exercise is not to equate in any sense Romanticism on the one hand, and the literature of the slave narrative on the other. Both projects, though, are shown to be enmeshed in the same confluence of historical, political and literary discourses surrounding abolitionism, colonialism, and the representation of the self. Taken together, these diverse works from the period can be read as a form of "transatlantic testimony" that is seen to transcend race and geography.