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The Problem of Embodiment in Early African American Narrative.

Katherine Fishburn. Westport: Greenwood P, 1997. 195 pp. $55.00.

Reviewed by

Frances Smith Foster Emory University

In her preface, Katherine Fishburn, informs us that The Problem of Embodiment in Early African American Narrative was not an easy book to write because the texts resisted her intentions and assumptions. Her original idea was to extend "a major trend in recent literary theory and criticism" by exploring "the matter of bodies in the composition, contents, and reception of African American fiction." The fiction resisted her efforts by redirecting her attention to one of its more obvious precursors, the nineteenth-century slave narratives. Those texts were uncooperative also, for they did not display the dilemma over extolling the rational mind without obscuring the body beaten, and vice versa. They defeated her expectations that African American authors would find it difficult to figure themselves physically when they knew their bodies as betraying them to be slaves or kin to slaves. Fishburn had assumed her task would be to ascertain the organizing principles by which these writers denied, underplayed, or overcame the challenge of re-presenting their physical selves without compromising the intentions of their texts. Her epiphany came when she decided that the problem of embodiment was, for slave narrators, the "same kind of intellectual problem" that occupied David Michael Levin, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Fishburn's narrative of how this book was born confirms what the reader fairly quickly suspects: The focus of The Problem of Embodiment in Early African American Narrative is upon the first four words of its title. While scenes or segments from several of the best known African American narrators are cited, little or no attention is given to their texts as a whole or to variables such as era, geography, or genre. Early includes publications from the late eighteenth century to early twentieth. African American conflates the cultural experiences of Mary Prince, Olaudah Equiano, and Frances E. W. Harper. If the emphasis upon the theory is compared with that upon the texts cited, one could say that the narratives serve as pasta for the theoretical sauce.

The sauce in itself, however, is well worth sampling. Fishburn argues that slave narrators solved the "problem of embodiment" by rejecting prevailing notions of a mind-body split and assuming a "fundamental dependence of human be-ing on human embodiment." They "used their bodies to contest the notion of subject and subjectivity" by writing the "body-self." By interrogating "what the slave knew and how this knowing has informed subsequent generations of texts," this book intends to account for nothing less than "the founding impulse that lies behind the production of African American narrative literatures." In fact, Fishburn concludes that this literature offers "one of the most effective, if heretofore overlooked, pre-Heideggerian critiques of humanism and metaphysics ever attempted in the West."

These are grand ideas, and this is an ambitious project, even when the object is not to argue conclusively but merely to postulate. Unfortunately, Fishburn attempts this complex and complicated task in three chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue which together total approximately 135 pages. The introduction summarizes the ideas of Michel Foucault and Martin Heidegger which are most salient to her own argument. Chapter one, "Thinking Through the Body," identifies the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty which support a philosophy of human connectedness without undue reliance "on historical record or a theory of cultural crossings." Chapter two, "The Body's Recollection of Being," gives a brief nod to Olaudah Equiano's 1789 text but focuses Frederick Douglass's Narrative (1845) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), using the Aunt Hester whipping and the Covey fight in the Narrative and James McCune Smith's introduction to Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom to reveal "compassion" and "sympathy" as the keys that opened narrators such as Frederick Douglass to "being" and made it possible for them to write. "Disappearing Acts," the third chapter, adds Harriet E. Wilson's novel to the personal narratives of Mary Prince, Louisa Picquet, and Harriet Jacobs so that Fishburn may discuss the special accommodations that female writers made. And Fishburn concludes her study with a brief epilogue, "Justice in the Flesh," which focuses upon two turn-of-the-century novels (Pauline Hopkins's Contending Forces and Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy) to show that "postbellum novels" increasingly repressed "the racialized black body."

The book requires a lot from its readers. While its style is accessible, the pains its author takes to clarify her position occupies the bulk of the book. This leaves to the reader the tasks of readily recognizing the early African American writer, text, or incident cited, of knowing why they are representative and if they are appropriately represented, and of fleshing out the argument with other examples. How, for example, do the slave narratives of fugitives William and Ellen Craft and emancipated Richard Allen, or the fiction of William Wells Brown and Sutton Griggs, fit into her equation?

As if in recognition of its difficulty, more than a third of the book (approximately 75 pages) is devoted to footnotes and bibliography. I found this apparatus, with its appeals to authority, asides, and clarifications, essential to understanding and evaluating the argument. The footnotes, handily appearing at the end of each chapter, refer the reader to other critics and theorists whose discussions contextualize or underlie this one. The bibliography suggests other scholars and a few of the nineteenth-century African American texts that may have informed Fishburn's conclusions.

The Problem o Embodiment in Early African American Literature demonstrates some of the challenges and opportunities which result when existing theories are adapted and applied to texts other than those from which they were first developed. Its author seems to expect, even welcome, the controversy that this experiment will provoke and explicitly states her wish to imitate the slave narratives by challenging both liberal humanism and Western metaphysics while at the same time going against the grain of critics who tend to overemphasize aesthetics, anthropology, or sociology in their readings of African American literature. But Katherine Fishburn's larger goal, I think, is reconciliation, for her conclusion is that early African American narratives help readers, even or especially in the twentieth century, to understand that "as embodied beings we are all always already predisposed to achieving justice in the flesh."
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Foster, Frances Smith
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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