Thursday, March 26, 2009

"A word not elegant, nor in use"

I am thinking Samuel Johnson would not have endorsed the term defrag...

A great piece by Thomas Keymer in the TLS this week (a version of the introduction to a forthcoming Oxford World's Classics edition) on Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. I was just mentioning that the other day as something I have never taught but would like to. This I did not know:
Even against this political backdrop, however, there remained readers for whom Rasselas could continue to express the hopeful pursuit of autonomy and happiness. This may have been especially true for African readers in the century following publication, when the name of Johnson’s hero was occasionally adopted by emancipated slaves. Traceable individuals such as Rasselas Belfield (c1790–1822) and Rasselas Morjan (c1820–1839), both former slaves who lived as free men in England, took the name not only because Rasselas was one of the very few eligible Africans in English literature (one would hardly pick Oroonoko, or Othello), and not only because Johnson was revered among abolitionists for his public declarations against slavery. Rasselas is among much else an ingenious variation on the standard eighteenth-century captivity narrative, documenting the hero’s liberation or escape from imprisonment, and in this sense the name also connoted deliverance into a world of potential fulfilment, confronted in freedom.

“Rescued from a state of slavery in this life and enabled by God’s grace to become a member of his church he rests here in the hope of a greater deliverance hereafter”, reads the headstone of Rasselas Morjan’s grave in Wanlip, Leicestershire. At Bowness on Windermere, Rasselas Belfield is memorialized in more secular style, and in first-person verse: “A Slave by birth I left my native Land / And found my Freedom on Britannia’s Strand: / Blest Isle! Thou Glory of the Wise and Free, / Thy Touch alone unbinds the Chains of Slavery”. We cannot know the relationship between these rather conventional inscriptions and the lives and aspirations of their subjects, and it is clear that despite their manumission both men continued to work as domestic servants. That said, the expensiveness and quality of the surviving monuments to Rasselas Morjan and Rasselas Belfield make clear that both were valued upper servants in enlightened households. Whatever questions there might be about the completeness of their emancipation, we can safely assume that they had better chances of pursuing happiness than their still enslaved contemporaries across the Atlantic. Life itself still had to be lived, but like Johnson’s hero they could at least choose how to endure and even enjoy it.

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