Critical Insights: The Slave Narrative
Outstanding, in-depth scholarship by renowned literary critics; great starting point for students seeking an introduction to the theme and the critical discussions surrounding it.
This volume presents recent critical work on the literary genre known as the slave narrative. It covers antebellum slave narratives as well as postbellum novels of slavery and twentieth-century neoslave narratives, thus examining texts from an extended tradition of the slave narrative. Since the bulk of significant critical work in this field was published between the 1960s and the early 1990s, this volume also provides a sense of recent approaches and trends. Most of the texts studied here are well known, and most of them are by American authors, with some crucial exceptions. The critical treatments of these texts draw on various disciplinary approaches to their topics, which is quite appropriate because since its origins, the slave narrative has been read as political argument, oral testimony, historical document, cultural fiction, speculative fiction, and literary protest. This interdisciplinarity is especially visible in the volume’s “Critical Contexts” chapters, each of which takes on a particular critical approach to its subject. What draws all of the chapters together, however, are shared concerns with the ways authors shaped their stories to meet the demands of their audiences, to do various kinds of political work, and to construct a particular image of the enslaved self.
The introduction to the volume, “On the Slave Narrative,” confronts the commonplace idea that the slave narrative is a dead genre, used only before the Civil War in service of the abolitionist cause and then “retired” when it was no longer needed. On the contrary, the history of this genre shows that the trauma of slavery has been repressed, while the systems that supported it have remained largely intact. The promise of social justice for African Americans represented in the Emancipation Proclamation and in the constitutional amendments that followed remain unmet, and thus fictional versions of the slave narrative (known as “neoslave narratives”) continue to be written. This chapter outlines the genre’s characteristics, its target audience, its themes and topics, and its various contemporary manifestations, as well as the political significance of these qualities in the antebellum period and today.
Each essay is 2,500 to 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:
- About This Volume
- Critical Context: Original Introductory Essays
- Critical Readings: Original In-Depth Essays
- Further Readings
- Detailed Bibliography
- Detailed Bio of the Editor
- General Subject Index
While the chapters in this volume examine many of the most popular representations of slavery, the volume, by necessity, could not cover other equally significant representations or provide a complete account of the possible scholarly and political approaches to these narratives. For this reason, two bibliographies are available at the end of this volume, one covering a group of slave narratives, novels, and neo-slave narratives that have been usefully studied by scholars over the years, and the other highlighting significant examples of this critical work. Even these lists are incomplete, as there are hundreds of slave narratives and many fictional representations of slavery in the U.S. alone and hundreds of articles and books studying them. It is hoped that the reader will be inspired to contribute to this field, both by what has been included in the volume and by what has not.