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  • “The Original Romance of America”: Slave Narratives and Transnational Networks in Theodore Parker’s American Literary History

    David Watson

    Chapter from the book: Helgesson, S et al. 2018. World Literatures: Exploring the Cosmopolitan-Vernacular Exchange.


    Theodore Parker’s 1849 address “The Position and Duties of the American Scholar” is best remembered for the observation that “all of the original romance of America” is in its slave narratives, which he identifies with what is “indigenous and original” in American literature. But Parker situates American literature within a transnational continuum, arguing that it evolves via vernacularising literatures from elsewhere. For Parker, American literature is divided between transient forms of writing reflecting their locale, and a “permanent literature” offering American iterations of cosmopolitan discourses. Within this system, the slave narrative is a variant of accounts of “the lives of early martyrs... and saints.” I argue that Parker’s account is sourced in the German Biblical higher criticism of Wilhelm De Wette and Johann Eichhorn. This scholarship takes as its central premise the historicity of the Bible—it treats sacred scripture as a potentially secular script that often reflects its period rather than divine inspiration, which shows itself intermittently in both the Bible and other writing. Parker’s translation of De Wette provides him with the coordinates whereby to map a vernacularised American literature.

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    Watson, D. 2018. “The Original Romance of America”: Slave Narratives and Transnational Networks in Theodore Parker’s American Literary History. In: Helgesson, S et al (eds.), World Literatures. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16993/bat.f

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Published on Nov. 22, 2018


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