Reviews

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

  • 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 ...