The Magazine

Identity Theft

A rediscovered classic of souls in transition.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By EDITH ALSTON
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Looby probes at points where Bird's views of the self intersect with the 18th-century ideas of David Hume--and possibly even resonate in neuroscience today. As to whether to ground yourself in the substantial introduction before or after reading this novel, it's a hard call, when the story itself is such a colorful romp through affairs of society, the pocketbook, and the heart. Beyond the comedy in each opportunistic shift into the next body, the story dips twice into murkier depths: first when the old moneylender finds that his sons have learned the lessons of his miserliness too well, and then when the Quaker, kidnapped and conveyed to Virginia, lands in a slave named Tom.

In 1831, Walt Whitman (also a reporter at the time) wrote that The Gladiator was "as full of 'Abolitionism' as an egg is meat." That same year, America was rocked by the slave rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner, which left 55 white people dead and Turner hanged. Five years later slavery was still the country's most festering issue when Bird chose to step back, taking the traveler's more remote (if reflective) view, panning from the cabin of the field slave to the big house of his benignly condescending owner, to encompass the tragedy inflicted by an uprising on innocent lives.

A contemporary of Tocqueville, Bird has a similar gift for identifying the political embedded in the social--but with a mischievous eye, and a homeboy's view of his country in early adolescence, struggling to get past its own worst foibles to know itself. A sketcher in his early years, Bird later became a photographer, taught high school in Philadelphia, and was a medical school lecturer. Looby is the professor who unearthed this lovely forgotten work, and brought it to the editors at the New York Review of Books, for which we can all be grateful.

Unless you are a scholar of early 19th-century American fiction, Robert Montgomery Bird might well be the most entertaining antebellum novelist you never heard of.

Edith Alston is an editor and writer in New York.