An obscure, newly unearthed 19th-century memoir details the prison life of an African-American inmate.
Discovered at an estate sale by a rare book dealer and authenticated by a Yale curating team, Reed’s handwritten, hand-sewn manuscript dated 1858 is now duly recognized with publication in its entirety. A lengthy discussion provided by the book’s editor, Caleb Smith, supplies vital details on the lengths taken to authenticate the document’s history and its genesis as the first-known penitentiary narrative by an African-American writer. Smith pieces together Reed’s life through prison records and varied archival sources to establish a complementary preface to the author’s narrative self-portrait. Written for public consumption, Reed’s lyrical, dramatic prose describes his incremental descent into the New York penal system and a life in legal captivity, by way of a rebellious youth tarnished by the death of his father and a cursory upbringing by a struggling, widowed mother who sent him to work on a farm at a young age. This is the first of three stories of imprisonment Reed depicts. Defiant and uncooperative, he writes of being severely beaten by the farmer, who then met his demise during a revenge plot, which landed the author in the New York House of Refuge reformatory, his second confinement, at 12. Reed toiled and received an education but remained defiant, as evidenced by a botched escape attempt with other inmates. Returning to the clutches of sadistic constables, the author describes their corporal punishments in feverish detail. A repetitive pattern of larcenies and thefts earned him subsequent sentences served at the Auburn state penitentiary during the unreformed antebellum years; Reed endured frequent episodes of dehumanizing punishment. “Rendered with a haunting eloquence,” much of the memoir’s allure is derived from Reed’s poetic, lyrical, passionate voice.
A moving, significant narrative that affords both an elegantly produced glimpse of 19th-century prison life and a new chapter in African-American history through a convict’s eyes.