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Letters of Ignatius Sancho.

Edwards, Paul, and Polly Rewt, eds. Letters of Ignatius Sancho. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1994. 304 pp. $60.00.

The passing in 1992 of Paul Edwards, late professor of English and African Literature at the University of Edinburgh, marked the decease of a scholar not particularly well known on this side of the Atlantic, but to whom a goodly number of us are nonetheless indebted. In 1968 Edwards produced the first scholarly edition of Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative, an edition that arguably played a major role in promoting the growth of teaching and research on Equiano. One year later, Edwards published another first--a modern edition of eighteenth-century African writing. In the intervening twenty-six years, several collaborative projects, single-author articles, and the Early Black Writers series all attested to Edwards's unceasing intellectual curiosity about those writers, and his commitment to recuperating the archaeology of an Afro-English literary tradition.

Whatever other purely scholarly motives made this tradition compelling for him, it was indisputably Sancho the man (1729-80) that absorbed Edwards's untiring personal interest. The contingency of his death, even as he was preparing the materials for the latest edition of Sancho's Letters, reflects the enduring fascination this remarkable African man of letters, avid reader and informed commentator, bon vivant and shopkeeper held over Edwards's imagination.

Rereading some of the letters by the clearer light of this diligently annotated text, I was struck by the truth of David Dabydeen's testimony to Edwards's unabating absorption. And without detracting in the least from Polly Rewt's own distinctive contribution (she wrote the notes to about half of the letters), it seems likely that something of that enthusiasm and, dare I say, special affection for the personality and presence of the author must have infected Edwards's coeditor. Assuming responsibility for a work already in progress is hardly a routine enterprise. Rewt's success may be measured by the relative seamlessness of the final product. And the yoked capacities of both editors have worked together efficiently to extend our comprehension of Sancho's personality and personae.

Copious and illuminating, the notes evidence close attention to facts, and thoughtful tentativeness when the facts are obscure. Informative glosses on Sancho's family, his social circle, and his broad interests make this edition far more user-friendly for the non-specialist reader than earlier ones. These qualities are especially useful in interpreting the contents of letters like numbers 5 and 9. The same qualities recommend this edition to the academic community, and are indispensable in that series of letters in which Sancho comments on the American War of Independence (55, 56, and 138), and on the sectarian troubles known as the Gordon Riots (134-37). But they are especially valuable in letters in which Sancho deliberately codes his references or assumes any number of perversely ironic stances so typical of his verbal art (e.g., 66 and 103). The work of Rewt and Edwards in establishing the historical contexts for Sancho's allusions to contemporary events (like the St. Edmund Hall Massacre and the expulsion of the Oxford Six for Methodist evangelizing [Letter 11]) impresses deeply on our critical judgment the exceptional erudition of Sancho, his steady engagement with the great political and social issues of his time, his patriotism, and his passionate identification with currents of thought and modes of feeling in Georgian England.

Supported by this kind of research and interpretation, this edition of the Letters reminds us, only now all the more persuasively, how thoroughly Sancho assimilated himself into a society that allowed him rare social access and cultural freedom, but only limited opportunity to explore and perfect his manifest artistic and intellectual abilities.

In point of epistolary content, this edition differs little from earlier ones. Comprising a total of 159 letters, the earliest written in 1768 and the latest dated December 7, 1780 (one week before Sancho's death), this edition asserts over its predecessors a higher value both to the academic scholar and to the general reader by the weight and calibre of its research. Rewt's "Preface" and Dabydeen's "Foreword" lay out the particular circumstances surrounding the work's conception and elaboration. A list of letters at the very start of the volume decodes for the first time the recipients' identities, which earlier editions denoted only by their initials. Only six recipients remain unidentified (sharing among them twenty-two letters). The "Introduction," written by Edwards, previews some newly discovered facts and insights, while exploring certain persistent rhetorical and critical issues raised by the letters and by modern scholarship about them. Seven appendices (I-III and VI written by Edwards, and IV, V, and VII written by Rewt) contain matters ranging from problems in dating the letters, through William Stevenson's index of Sancho's correspondents, to an illuminating note about the Sancho children. With respect to dating, the editors correct some long extant (and some highly troublesome) errors in the text of Mrs. Crewe (Sancho's first editor). Thanks to John Gumett, who has researched Sancho's letters and family for more than a decade, Rewt was able to complete a family tree of the Sancho children, bringing to light a previously unknown son, Jonathan William Sancho, who died before his eighth birthday.

The Letters have long afforded a rare window into the mercurial consciousness of an eighteenth-century black man who could deftly contrive a livelihood from catering to the everyday needs of grocery shoppers, and fashion an identity for himself from reading and criticizing Pope, Swift, Sterne, and other artists. To serious students and scholars, this edition will be worth its price for the value it offers as a source documenting the black critique of contemporary history. Assisted by Edwards's and Rewt's work, new generalist readers will be both instructed and fascinated by the full-bodied portrait the Letters paint of an African who could hold cultivated commerce with Garrick, Reynolds, and Gainsborough, and still find time to do mundane commerce with a banker (John Spink) and a bookseller (Jack Wingrave), to solicit charity for a cousin of Grotius, propose a scheme for tax reform, and submit a bid for a post office franchise. All these variegations of Sancho's personality conclude him a man deeply engaging and passionately engaged with the actors and actions of his time.
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Author:Sandiford, Keith A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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