Written by Himself
by Robert Montgomery Bird
NYRB Classics, 472 pp., $16.95
By the time the feckless young Sheppard Lee discovers himself dead, in the vicinity of the corpulent remains of John Hazlewood Higginson, which he will soon occupy, Lee has laid waste to his inheritance, rejected marriage on the grounds of the nuisance he sees in fathering children, and dipped into local politics enough to be cheated by the party he's helped bring to power.
"The scoundrels!" he exclaimed after the job he was promised has, instead, gone to the party member who promised it to him:
I perceived that I had fallen among thieves; it was clear that no party could be in the right, which was led by such unprincipled men; there was corruption at the heart of the whole body . . . their honesty was a song--their patriotism was a farce. In a word, I found I had joined the wrong party.
Shortly, claiming his story will be neither "a dissertation on politics, nor on morals either," Lee is beginning to expound on both.
Readers will barely be settled into the saddle of this rollicking, satirical ride of a novel when its author introduces the unsettling literary device of metempsychosis, meaning the transfer of souls from one body to another, a term widely understood when this book first came out, in 1836, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
In playful recognition of the story it told, the volume didn't carry the name of its actual author, Robert Montgomery Bird. At 30, Bird was a successful writer of popular entertainment, the Michael Crichton or Aaron Sorkin of his day: Crichton for his extrapolation of the social from the medical, and Sorkin for his capacity to inhale the zeitgeist and exhale it as witty dialogue and circumstance. In its merry mix of the macabre and jaunty pace, Sheppard Lee will seem strikingly contemporary to anyone who has recently dipped into TV, from its shades of the shades in Six Feet Under to the overleaping of mortality suggestive of New Amsterdam to the whimsical contrivances keeping characters alive in Pushing Daisies.
Trained as a physician in bustling Philadelphia, Bird had discovered he didn't like charging patients or failing to heal them, and abandoned clinical practice after less than a year. His true calling (or one of them) had meanwhile emerged in medical school, as a scribbler of poetry, prose, and plays. When Edwin Forrest, the country's most prominent young actor, set up a playwriting competition, Bird won it four times; his 1831 work was The Gladiator, about the slave revolt led by Spartacus, and the star vehicle for which Forrest was best known throughout his career. Bird was the same age as Forrest and toured with him awhile, until their friendship ended in a money dispute. By the mid-1830s Bird was turning out a novel a year.
Edgar Allan Poe hailed Sheppard Lee as "an original in American Belles Lettres," and a sign of a promising literary future for the young nation. Poe himself was then only 26, and unknown except as a reporter and literary critic, when he faulted the writer's use of metempsychosis, claiming that the spirit passing from Sheppard Lee into seven other bodies should be constant in nature. Two years later, Poe would turn the device to his own ends in "Lygeia," which would become one of his most famous stories, while in Bird's use of it he had entirely missed the point.
Slipped into the unruly body of John Hazlewood Higginson, the mind--or spirit, or soul--of Sheppard Lee is launched on an adventure that ranges over a goodly portion of the social and geographical landscape of early 19th-century America, passing from the madcap brewer into a penniless dandy, a stingy moneylender and a thick-headed Quaker philanthropist before being conveyed below the Mason Dixon line to inhabit a plantation slave and rich Virginia landowner.
In his introduction, Christopher Looby calls Lee an "identity thief," trying on lives, and almost apologetically labels Bird's story a "rueful comedy" and "weird book" before establishing it as quite a bit more than that. For one thing, it is the perfect instrument for a writer with a physician's curiosity and a philosophical bent, wanting both to probe at the point where the nature of the physical human body intersects with the universal human condition, and to scan the wide-open landscape of a country still groping for its national identity.
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.