From 1760 to 1947, more than
200 book-length slave narratives were published in the United States and
England, and more than 6,000 briefer slave narratives, some as short as a page,
are known to exist. Slave narratives have a place in
American literature, both as literary artifacts and as effect propaganda in the
slave narratives included:
Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton
Hammon, a Negro Man (1760) -- "the
first slave narrative"
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the
African (1798) -- "the first truly
notable slave narrative"
19th-century narratives were also popular, such as:
Confessions of Nat Turner (1831)
Narrative of Lunsford Lane (1842)
Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Narrative of William W. Brown
Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,
by Harriet Ann Jacobs (1861)
early slave narratives are sometimes compared to such 20th-century works as:
semi-fictional Roots, 1976, by Alex Haley
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman,
1966, by Ernest Gaines
Jubilee, 1966, by Margaret Walker
influences on the slave narrative in American literature were many:
King James Bible
traditions of New England sermonizing
aims, fervor, and rhetoric of abolitionist orators
Devotional books, lives of saints and martyrs, and religious allegories such
as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678)
influences affected not only the former slaves whose lives were the subject of
narratives but also those white abolitionists who assisted in the writing of
many slave narratives. Particular attention might be paid to elements of
traditional autobiography, storytelling, adventuring, and sermonizing that lent
effectiveness to the slave narratives.
19th-century "ante-bellum" (the
period before a war) slave narrative:
- Generally attempted to arouse the
sympathy and humanitarian impulses of readers.
- Emphasized traditional Christian
- Showed the acceptance of the ideals of
the dominant white society.
- Emphasized the cruelty of individual
the black narratives of the 20th century:
little overt effort to arouse the readers' sympathy and humanitarian feeling
traditional white values
Celebrate the power of black people
Concentrate on the racism and cruelty of society as a whole rather than on the
racism and cruelty of individuals
narratives are sometimes compared to "Rags-to-Riches Tales,"
which are akin to parts of Benjamin Franklin’s
autobiography and the Horatio Alger “Ragged Dick” series. Usually, a poor
boy goes to the city, makes the most of his chances, encounters good fortune and
events to prove himself, and advances to inevitable success. The
conventional rags-to-riches story contains:
- An early life of deprivation and hardship
or of benign simplicity.
- An abrupt departure from family and
- Travel to unfamiliar places.
- Confrontations with different cultures
and different customs.
- Reports of innocence encountering
sophistication, disregard, and cruelty.
- Triumph over adversity through hard work
and the help of friends.
- Achievement of financial success and
Slave narratives traditionally:
- Are episodic in form, like picaresque
- Are marked by passages of emotional
rhetoric and fervid appeals (often in the form of direct address) to the
conscience of the narrative reader.
- Emphasize the narrator’s rise to greater
understanding, greater self-reliance, and greater awareness of self-worth.
- Serve a propagandizing function by
arousing sympathy for the individual narrator and antipathy to slavery in
- Give detailed descriptions of the
cruelties of slavery and the harm done both to whites (in their spiritual
corruption) and to blacks (especially in their physical punishment, in their
lack of freedom, and in the breaking up of slave families).
- Contrast the kindness of some individual
whites to the cruelties of other individual whites and of the system of
slavery as a whole.
- Contrast the brutal reality of slavery to
the benign ideals of the nominally Christian society in which it exists.
narratives were popular because of:
lurid scenes of horror and violence that served as an acceptable gratification
of the popular appetite for sensationalism
religious emphasis and thus their usefulness as didactic stories and moral
interesting descriptions of life in the South and of the institution of
usefulness as propaganda in the abolition movement
usefulness as propaganda weapons in the sectional political battles in the
Unites States before the Civil War
narrative has been called a "landmark in the literary crusade against slavery,"
one of the "most influential pieces of reform propaganda in American
literature." Its popularity is accounted for by its:
Readability and simple and direct prose
to evoke sympathy and arouse emotion
"Sharply etched portraits" (such as that of Covey)
narrative is typical of the "traditional American autobiography" (again, think
Ben Franklin) because it:
only describes the life of an individual
also stands as a guide to life for others
- And is
a report of the discovery of the self
(Discussion Question: Which of these three qualities is most prominent in
narrative is also often compared with the "Indian Captivity Narrative" of Mary
Rowlandson. For example, each author:
abruptly brought from a state of protected innocence to confrontation with the
evil of slavery and captivity ("ruthlessly snatched from the hearth of a fond
from forced existence in an alien society
unable either to submit or effectively to resist
Balances the yearning for freedom against the perils of escape
his or her condition as a symbol of the suffering condition of all the lowly
in moral and spiritual strength as a result of suffering and torment
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