Friday, July 17, 2015

*Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, by Robert Montgomery Bird

NYRB Classics, 2008
originally published 1836
425 pp


Moving back to the 1830s once again,  this has to be one of the more bizarre novels I've come across from the early 1800s, but well worth it if for nothing else, the picaresque adventures of Sheppard Lee as he moves his soul/spirit/self into body after body.  According to Wikipedia, the term "picaresque" derives from the Spanish term "pícaro," or "rascal' " and there is really no better way to describe the star of this novel.  And before I go any further, a lot has been made about the racism in this novel, but the thing is, I wouldn't have expected anything different, considering the author. Robert Montgomery Bird was an anti-abolitionist, and this fact is reflected in the pro-slavery stance taken in this book.  More later on that; for now I'll just say that in Sheppard Lee, Bird manages to find something to say about people in every section of society of the time.

The titular character is a sort of grown-up ne'er do well who is left a prosperous estate upon the death of his father.  Because he is so lazy and doesn't tend to things he needs to do, the long and short of it is that he loses pretty much everything his father had worked so hard for.  Because he wants a quick out, eventually he gets the idea to go and dig up some legendary pirate treasure said to be buried close to his farm. An unfortunate accident while doing so leaves Lee in a sort of a trance; when he awakens, he looks down at
"...that eidolon, or representative, or duplicate of me, that was stretched on the grass" 
and realizes that he's actually looking at his own corpse. Running off in an unsuccessful effort to find help, he returns to the scene and his body has vanished, with only a "torn and bloody" shoe remaining.  As luck would have it, a certain Squire Higginson with whom Lee has had words, has also met his end, setting Lee to thinking:
"Why might I not, that is to say, my spirit, -- deprived by an unhappy accident of its natural dwelling, -- claim, and thus uniting interests together, as two feeble factions unite together in the political world, become a body possessing life, strength and usefulness?"
In short, Lee decides that it would be a good thing to "inhabit" Higginson's body -- and wishes it so. Soon he finds himself in the now-reanimated body of the Squire -- congratulating himself because now he is a "respectable man, with my pockets full of money."  But through a series of adventures, Higginson's body is just the first stop on Lee's soul/self/spirit journey (and I learned a new word to define this concept -- metempsychosis)  -- and along the way he moves into various bodies whose owners all have one big thing in common:  their lives are centered around money, each desiring to improve his own situation either through speculating, credit, expectations of good inheritances, or marrying into a better station.  Lee lives quite a few different lives and in each one, makes a number of discoveries as he seeks out happiness. The novel is a satire and serves to skewer familiar types of the period:  the dandy who plays a great game yet has not even a penny, a moneylender whose miserly qualities are very well known, an abolitionist philanthropist who spends his life trying to help the less fortunate and who does so ultimately at his own expense. What lesson does he ultimately learn? I leave that for the reader to discover.

the author, Robert Montgomery Bird
Now, getting to the modern reader's problematical issue of race in this novel,  here's where knowing even a little about American history can be a good thing. Personally, I look at this section as a sort of reflection of the fears that grabbed hold of many slave owners after the famous Nat Turner's rebellion, and indeed those of Robert Montgomery Bird as well.  Furthermore, as noted above, Bird himself was against abolition, so it's no surprise to me that he wrote this particular section the way he did.  In one book I looked at that made mention of Bird, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture,  the author notes Bird writing in his diary regarding slave uprisings that
"Someday we shall have it...and future generations will perhaps remember the horrors of Haiti as a farce compared with the tragedies of our own happy land." 
 If you look at the time in which this book was written, it had only been five years since the Nat Turner insurrection, which led to
"tightened restrictions on African Americans. Over the course of two days, dozens of whites were killed as Turner's band of insurrectionists, which eventually numbered over fifty, moved systematically from plantation to plantation in Southampton County. Most of the rebels were executed along with countless other African Americans who were suspected, often without cause, of participating in the conspiracy."  [link here]
It also led to false reporting of other slave insurrections that in reality never occurred, and a growing fear among white people that "slaves all over the state were secretly plotting to rebel and kill them."  When Sheppard Lee leaves the body of the abolitionist, he enters into the body of Tom the slave, who lives on a plantation in Virginia. The owner is shown here to be kindly, but he also takes a rather paternalistic point of view toward his slaves, an attitude in which slavery was not viewed as "an institution of brute force, but of responsible dominion over a less fortunate, less evolved people." Indeed, as Tom, things seem to go well, until an abolitionist pamphlet  falls into the hands of his fellow slaves.  Two of them try to figure out the text, but end up pantomiming a picture of other slaves being whipped by their master; this in turn leads to an uprising against Tom's master.  It's not at all pretty, moving into the downright deplorable zone, but I can get where Bird is coming from, given his pro-slavery stance.

All in all, though, as I said, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is a satire that not only takes on various types of people but also takes on the political situation under Jackson.  As was also the case with Hooper's Adventures of Captain Suggs, speculation runs rampant, and this novel reflects nearly each step of  Lee's travels via metempsychosis as a way in which he  plays the speculation game, gambling each time on a better life.

I laughed through a lot of this novel, at least until I reached the part where Lee jumps into Tom's body and things go terribly wrong; the rest of the book is actually quite funny and Sheppard Lee is a character I'll definitely remember.  As I said at the outset, this novel is one of the most bizarre I've read so far as I make my way through early American fiction, and I'd certainly recommend it as one not to miss as yet another  window into America's history via the medium of the novel.

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