THE SLAVE'S NARRATIVE: Texts and Contexts by Henry Louis & Charles T. Davis--Eds. Gates

THE SLAVE'S NARRATIVE: Texts and Contexts

Email this review


The editors, both professors of English at Yale, originally intended to assemble recent writings on the slave narrative as literature, says Gates (Davis has since died); but the collection, ""like Topsy, seems to have 'jus' grew.' "" It now comprises one-quarter contemporary reviews, one-quarter essays on the narratives as history, and one-half literary criticism--and aspires to a coherence that it doesn't attain in any single respect. The preface and the introduction argue for considering as slave narratives only chronicles written before 1865, though three of the five historical essays--including major pieces by C. Vann Woodward and John W. Blassinghame--deal with the very specific problems of interpreting the WPA slave narratives, derived from oral interviews with elderly ex-slaves in the 1930s (and Blassinghame also discusses postbellum chronicles). It is implied, too, that the selections' 200-year span (the first is a 1750 magazine review) recapitulates historical views of the narratives, but there is nothing from 1861 to the 1970s (save guidelines, by Sterling Brown, for the WPA compilers)--no direct reflection, that is, of the narratives' eclipse (as inauthentic) or their recovery. And, regarding the editors' central contention that the slave narratives constitute ""the very generic foundation upon which all subsequent Afro-American fictional and non-fictional narrative formed, extended, figured, and troped,"" the literary essays are clearly divided--apart from Ralph Ellison's explicit rejection of that formulation for The Invisible Man. But if the book is not comprehensive in its documentation, the contemporary reviews--of fictitious as well as ""real"" narratives--are highly suggestive. In the historical section, Robin Winks' study of how Josiah Henson came to be taken for Uncle Tom is a fascinating, ramifying piece of scholarly sleuthing (originally the introduction to a 1969 reprint of Henson's Autobiography). The various writings on the WPA interview-narratives form an instructive, cross-fertilizing group. And the literary essays, though often pedantic in both their close textual analyses and their structuralist ambitions, do have some bright spots. Paul Edwards, on ""Three West African Writers of the 1780s,"" singles out Equiano for appreciative comment. John Wideman, on ""Charles Chesnutt and the W.P.A. Narratives,"" explores a fiction writer's stylization of speech (and makes a case for the WPA tales as richer and more exciting than the antebellum narratives). Jean Fagin Yellin compares Harriet Jacobs' narrative and the letters that established her authorship. Still others, reflecting the ongoing debate, pinpoint white editors' contributions; and, in various contexts, attempt to establish the narratives' ""distinctive cultural voice."" For those with diverse special interests: complementary to the several fine full-length treatments--John Blassinghame's two, Marion Wilson Starling's--which the editors cite.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press