Saturday, February 06, 2016
Reading Austin Reed
More than one hundred and fifty years ago, Austin Reed, an African-American inmate of New York State's Auburn State Prison, wrote a book-length record of his life, which to that date had included several terms at Auburn as well as earlier period of confinement, as an adolescent, in the House of Refuge, a juvenile reformatory in New York City, which he first entered in 1833 at the age of ten. His manuscript was clearly intended for a potential reading public, and he apparently showed it to at least one prison official, a chaplain named Benoni I. Ives, some time around 1859; the author's handwritten note to Ives, on a tiny slip of paper, still exists.
After compiling the manuscript (some of which was written on Herman Melville's favorite writing paper), Austin Reed spent several additional years in the state prison system, receiving another conviction in 1864, but was eventually pardoned. As late as 1895 he was still alive and corresponding with the superintendent of the House of Refuge about his case records, some of which by that time would have been more than sixty years old. What became of him after that is unknown. The manuscript, still bearing the little slip of paper addressed to Ives, first surfaced a few years ago in Rochester, New York (Reed's native city), and was acquired by Yale University's Beinecke Library, which has posted it online. Caleb Smith's edition of the text, which includes a substantial introduction explaining how Reed's identity was determined and his account largely corroborated from other sources, has just been published.
The historical importance of Reed's narrative is, of course, immense; it's believed to be the earliest prison memoir by an African-American, and as a record from a "free" state, it provides useful comparison with contemporary memoirs by former slaves like Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass. As a literary document it resists simple readings; it blends a protest against the brutal treatment he and others received at the hands of the keepers of both of the institutions he describes with a warning, couched in the language of 19th-century evangelism, to others who might follow him down the path of crime. The outlines of the story he tells, including the details of his whippings and other punishments, and the names and fates of his fellow inmates, can be verified from existing records (the institutions were nothing if not thorough in their record-keeping). At other times, particularly of his activities during the brief periods when he was free, he evidently embellishes liberally; he was clearly familiar enough with the tropes of a variety of popular literature of the day to imitate them (though he professed a vehement loathing for novels), and here and there he plagiarizes brief descriptive passages. Aside from a lively but fairly implausible picaresque section in the middle, the overall veracity of his account seems well-established, but its documentary value does not exhaust the reasons for reading it.
Because it remained unpublished until recently, the narrative was never censored or "improved"; it preserves, for instance, Reed's lengthy diatribe against masturbation, which would presumably have been suppressed by a contemporary editor. Smith has normalized punctuation and corrected the spelling of some words, but has let Reed's grammatical and other errors stand. (All of the emendations are recorded in an appendix.) The edition provides essential background and annotation, but I have no doubt that the coming years will see additional clarifications and re-interpretations of both Reed's life and the text.
There is a brief interview with Caleb Smith on the website of WXXI radio.