Vincent Carretta (Fellow, 1983–84)
October 9, 2012
Over the past thirty-five years, historians, literary critics, and the general public have come to recognize the author of “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself” as one of the most accomplished English-speaking writers of African descent. Equiano’s autobiography is universally accepted as the fundamental text in the genre of the slave narrative. Excerpts from the book now appear in every anthology and on any website covering American, African-American, British, and Caribbean history and literature of the eighteenth century.
But what kind of a book is “The Interesting Narrative…”? Is treating it as a proto-African-American slave narrative the best way to understand it? How does knowing that, unlike most eighteenth-century authors, Equiano never sold his copyright, thus controlling every aspect of the production and distribution of his book through all nine of the editions published during his lifetime, affect our interpretation of the work? What might account for the fact that Equiano’s book was a bestseller during his lifetime? How important was the timing of the original publication of his book?