ASECS14: Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano

It's my favorite conference! 

At the 2014 meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS, Sessions Schedule here), presented on the second of two panels organized by The Bibliographical Society of  America, Print Culture and Dissent in the Long Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Here's a description of the panel from the original CFP:

“Frontispiece and Title Page”   Olaudah Equiano. From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African,   1789. Image. Newberry LIbrary. Web. 27 September 2013. 

“Frontispiece and Title Page” Olaudah Equiano. From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789. Image. Newberry LIbrary. Web. 27 September 2013. 

This panel explores the role print culture played in religious mid educational knowledge exchanges across the eighteenth century as a means of opening discussions about dissenting practice in the Atlantic World. This panel will ask several key questions: how might these interactions and exchanges enrich our understanding of the dimensions of religious, educational, and cultural practice in the transatlantic dissenting community? What can be learned from the successes or failures of the many efforts to propagate and disseminate forms of dissenting knowledge? How might exploring the reception or dismissal of particular books alter our understanding of dissent?

My paper, “Authoring Self in the Slave Narratives of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince,” contrasted the different ways the two texts navigate questions of authorship and agency.  As I'm revising it post-conference, I plan to focus more on Mary Prince's History  as a way of exploring a kind of agency that doesn't subscribe to the author or activist models seen in Equiano's Narrative or other earlier British abolitionist writing. 

In an earlier incarnation,  this paper was a Rare Book Seminar in Watts Program of the John Carter Brown Library (Brown University), 10 October 2013.  

From the Watts Seminar description: For former slaves turned authors, Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, their autobiographies were not just tools in the abolitionist movement. The control they could exert over the content, form, and marketing of their books offered the opportunity to fashion public identities as free subjects, as authors of their own destinies. For Equiano, this led to wealth and international fame; for Prince, it was more complicated. Looking at the JCB's different editions of their narratives, we will see how their control over these textual bodies became contested in ways that mirrored their struggles to reclaim their legal selfhood.

For more information on the Fall 2013 Watts Program series, "What Is the History of the Book Today?," consult the blog's past semesters page.

"Title Page" The History of Mary Prince. 1831.Image. British Library. Web. 27 September 2013.

"Title Page" The History of Mary Prince. 1831.Image. British Library. Web. 27 September 2013.

Equiano's Narrative has been a recurring presence in my work. I first read the narrative in my undergraduate first year writing course a lifetime ago. It is a text I love to teach, especially along side Frances Burney's Mastectomy Letter, and my chapter “Loving the Unstable Text and Times of Equiano’s Narrative: Using Carretta’s Biography in the Classroom” is in Teaching Olaudah Equiano's Narrative: Pedagogical Strategies and New Perspectives  (University of Tennessee Press, 2012, accessible via Project Muse). Due to Equiano's account of the Ottomans, the Narrative also appears in my book,  The Sway of the Ottoman Empire on English Identity in the Long Eighteenth Century  (see chapter five).

Lately though, my attention has been shifting towards Prince's History. While doing further research at the JCB, I've becoming intrigued by one of the groups that read Prince's History, The Female Society for the Relief of British Negro Slaves. Their albums (four of which are at the JCB, and I think that the Boston Athenaeum and NYPL also have copies) were intended to spread common information for abolitionists (post-abolition of the trade): excerpts from pamphlets, newspapers, images, and other sources were included in the album and in some cases pasted (or transcribed by hand, in one album I've looked at) in. I'm fascinated with the variations between these, especially individual drawings, poems written over more factual inserts, and other marginalia. I read the albums as representing the targeted audience of Prince's History,  a way of tracing its reception, and in the case letters from a Society member included the third edition, one of many authorial voices shaping the text.