Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself by Robert Montgomery Bird

Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery BirdI just finished reading Sheppard Lee; Written by Himself (published 1863) for the first time, and man, is my brain tired. Actually, I also went to my graduate school discussion of it the night before writing this, and was relieved that everyone else was struggling too, though part of me was hoping that everyone else had brilliant explications and I was just a dunce. Apparently not.

Sheppard Lee sounds like the most interesting book ever. A lazy farmer (Lee) accidentally kills himself while searching for buried treasure and realizes that he is a ghost. He then accidentally possesses the body of a neighbor (Squire Higginson) who he hates because he’s made fun of Lee and is richer. Lee then shoots his own dog in the face and kills a lot of other people’s dogs as well – there’s a high animal body count in the early part of the novel. Going home to his new house Lee-as-Higginson realizes he has gout, which he might be able to live with, and a shrewish wife, which he cannot. Now realizing that having money and the ability to shoot birds with ease doesn’t guarantee happiness, he wishes himself into the body of a young man, who he watched attempt suicide by drowning before trying unsuccessfully to save him. (Why he doesn’t shout, “Hey! I. D. Dawkins! How’s it going?” or something similar I’ll never know.) Once in Dawkins’ body, however, Lee realizes that he’s up to his ears in debt, he’s blown his inheritance, and the ladies he’s trying to con into matrimony have found better deals. Lee is also, we learn, fairly unable to do anything in the body that the original person wouldn’t have done themselves. “Quantum Leap” it ain’t*.

I’d love for this to be a 1980s style body switching comedy, but if it’s a comedy at all (I was not laughing), it’s a dark one. After being duped by the ladies he was trying to dupe, Dawkins becomes the moneylender Abram Skinner, and has absolutely no personality outside of the super unflattering one that Skinner was assigned. He then ends up as Zachariah Longstraw, who is killed multiple times, and who Lee almost gets trapped in by 1) live burial, and 2) severe brain damage, as the original Longstraw had his head bashed in by someone he was trying to help. In fact, Longstraw is probably the most severely punished character (physically), and he’s also the only one that’s even remotely trying to be a decent person. A philanthropist (and a Quaker, I believe), he gives away his money to the wrong people, is duped out of most of his money, and gets killed multiple times for his trouble.

Then we get into the unpardonable section of the novel, when Lee becomes Tom, a slave. I have never seen “the n word” on a page so many times. This chapter, it’s just … so offensive. As Tom, Lee is happy, he has a nice master, and gets to play with the master’s son, he says the work on the plantation isn’t that hard. (… Wow, okay …) Then Lee and the other slaves come upon an abolitionist pamphlet, and Lee (he can still read, though that’s the only ‘ability’ that seems linked to his soul throughout the entire novel) reads it to the other slaves, and things get bad. Really bad.

Suddenly realizing that they are slaves and what that means, the group, including Lee, organize an uprising, kill the master and his oldest son, and then attempt to rape the master’s daughters, who kill themselves to escape being raped (and then killed, presumably). It is emphasized throughout this section, as if the reader was left with any doubt about how the narrative felt, that the masters were great people who didn’t deserve to die at all. The scene where the young daughters die to escape sexual assault is one I read in open-mouthed horror. The audacity of a white man to write slaves as going from content simpletons to bloodthirsty rapists because of education; it is disgusting. Everything is offensive about that. There is no part of this section that doesn’t play into stereotypes and the most horrific racism.

No one seems to be able to get around this section in scholarship and why no one has renounced it I can only wonder. I’ve heard it apologized for as being “of the period,” but I don’t know how well that sits with me. If it’s supposed to be satire, it’s not very good satire, and the author (later revealed to be Robert Montgomery Bird, the novel was originally published anonymously) has some ambiguous views on subject in his personal life that doesn’t exactly help the argument.

Finally, and after the Tom I was thrilled for a ‘finally,’ Lee becomes Arthur Megrim: young, brilliant, rich, but with some sort of catastrophic indigestion. If only I cared about Lee’s happiness even a little perhaps I would feel bad for him … but I hate him so I don’t care and actually prefer that he’s unhappy. Then Lee-as-Megrim goes insane and (spoiler alert) ends up back in his own, apparently insane, original body. Yes it’s the ‘it was just a dream’ ending, but since it’s 1863 it is called madness instead. Lee’s brother-in-law has restored his farm and Lee, with his slave that he does not free because he learned slavery is super, decides to try to live a simple life on the farm. I’m sure he fails. Good.

Women do not escape this text much better. Aside from the fact that Lee never even considers the possibility of becoming a woman, they are portrayed as horrible, awful things that nag you to the point of wanting to die just to escape them. Also women are baby factories and dowry farms. Here’s a list of every woman in the entire text:

Fiancee 1: Sheppard Lee decides not to marry his original maybe-fiancee because he realizes that marriage turns women into baby factories (kids, gross!) and shrews. Someone else marries her instead, thank god!

Sister: Sheppard Lee’s sister is a total harpy while she’s wrangling the children she has no help with, women make babies and are shrews, it’s a fact.

Shrew Wife: Sheppard-as-Higginson could live with gout, but his wife makes him want to kill himself. Tending him as he recovers she is portrayed is bungling (hurting him accidentally while trying to hug him), and manipulative (if you deserve to be screamed at then don’t you dare cry about it when it happens missy).

Fiancee 2: Sheppard-as-Dawkins convinces his beautiful, but stupid, bumpkin cousin to marry him so he can get her inheritance. She is a harpy and leaves him, tricking her father in the process, in order to be with someone she really loves. Selfish idiot. Bonus mention: Pre-Sheppard the original Dawkins kills himself because of women and debt, saying as he leaps: “The devil take all women and tailors!” (Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter 9). Note that women refusing to marry people who only want them for their dowry is listed as the first reason for suicide, while self-inflicted catastrophic debit is listed second.

Fiancee 3: Sheppard-as-Dawkins convinces Skinner’s daughter to run away with him as a backup for the bumpkin cousin plan, this way he’ll have a woman’s inheritance no matter what. Because women are idiots without standards she marries Dawkins’ male bumpkin cousin instead just because he’s there. When Sheppard becomes Skinner she gets wrung out again by being the ungrateful daughter.

Sister Shrew: Sheppard-as-Megrim is, like Higginson, saddled with a shrew-relation non-nursing him back to health. Stop trying to help, women can’t be doctors, that’s a man’s job, and stop nagging me to take care of myself, shrew!

In fact, the only women mentioned in the novel that are not depicted as so awful that it makes Lee want to kill himself are the women on the plantation. During the uprising the slave women protect what children they can (the male children), and the female children virtuously commit suicide to avoid rape. Compliments for everyone! #sarcasm #ihatesheppardlee #iamsoangryrightnow

Were it up to me, Sheppard Lee would be relegated to the dustbin of history. While I agree with those who feel that forgetting racism and sexism is wrong, while I agree that history and literature should not be sterilized, I also believe that presenting this as anything other than racist and sexist is inappropriate. It had the potential to be one of the most interesting books ever, really, the premise is kind of amazing, and as far as I know it is the first novel of this kind. It’s clearly influenced popular culture, and has a chance for real social commentary. It doesn’t do that though.

Written at the birth of scientific racism, the narrative fails Tom and it fails women. Lee never blows up the ‘slave section’ to such an absurd degree that it can be read as parody, there is no evil slave master getting his comeuppance, for example. Lee never condescends to become a woman, passing entirely on the chance to explore the social structure that makes women into shrews, one that removes all power aside from emotional manipulation. Lee and Bird never go there, they are white, they are male, and they do not care about anyone aside from other white men.

I will never drag this relic into the classroom, but if you do I think it’s essential that you do so responsibly. Sheppard Lee needs to be read with an awareness of what it is, when it was written, and who the author was. Without that it’s just another horrifying, upsetting novel that, at best, will make people angry and, at worst, will be apologized for and politely swallowed.

* If “Quantum Leap” isn’t directly inspired by this novel I’ll eat my hat.

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