by Unknown | 1/01/2008 07:41:00 PM
By now, just about everyone in the Civil War history community has read Yale professor David Blight's new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom (Harcourt, 307 pages; $13.75 at Amazon). It's been reviewed in just about every historical and popular publication imaginable; it's been touted as a major new work and generally acclaimed by everyone who's seen it. And our own Kevin Levin was lucky enough to meet Blight in Fredericksburg, where they joined descendants of ex-slave John Washington in visiting sites where Washington lived and worked during the leadup to the Civil War. Kevin's recently declared the book to be the best slavery study of 2007.

All this hype has, of course, raised the bar for the book itself. The question is no longer whether the book is good and in and of itself, but whether it deserves the glowing praise it has heretofore garnered. Is A Slave No More a seminal work? The answer, for the most part, is yes.

A Slave No More chronicles the histories of two former slaves, John Washington and Wallace Turnage, whose autobiographical manuscripts have been only recently rediscovered by historians. Washington, born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, crossed over to Union lines when the Northern armies reached his hometown; while working as a servant for General Rufus King, he was able to bring his entire extended family north to relative safety in the nation’s capital. Turnage was sold south, where as a teenager he made a series of daring escapes, suffered cruel beatings, and eventually reached a Union fort in Mobile Bay, from whence he was transported north to freedom. Each man recorded his experiences for posterity; each narrative was passed down to children and grandchildren before coming to the attention of David Blight’s editor at Harcourt. The two manuscripts, each written in a steady and decisive hand, join only a handful of existing narratives that depict slaves escaping during the Civil War itself; as such, they are invaluable documents for scholars.

Though David Blight is listed as the sole author of A Slave No More, he had a lot of help in the book’s creation. For one thing, the unedited transcriptions of Washington’s and Turnage’s manuscripts, plus an additional autobiographical vignette by Washington, make up two-fifths of the book’s text. For another, much of the background research about the two men’s lives was conducted by Christine McKay, an archivist at the New York Public Library. While it is standard practice for only the author of the text to be listed on a book’s cover, it is also customary for that author to have conducted most if not all of the research for the volume. To his credit, Blight is effusive in his praise for McKay in two separate places in the book, and he lists Washington and Turnage as co-authors on the back cover. However, it would have been generous of Blight to recognize McKay more fully than he has done, perhaps listing her as a second or co-author.

If Blight’s job was primarily to synthesize the manuscripts and accompanying research into a cohesive story, he has performed this feat magnificently. The stories of Washington, who worked his way into the middle class and died in a comfortable three-story house, and Turnage, who scraped along in poverty for his entire life, have little in common. The two men did not even escape in the same year or under the same circumstances; Washington simply waded across a river to a Union camp, while Turnage failed in four dramatic escape attempts before finally being rescued by Union soldiers in Mobile Bay. In a risky move that further jeopardizes the coherence of his narrative, Blight chooses to discuss the early lives of each man in separate chapters, though he integrates the stories of their postwar experiences into a single chapter.

All this pays off for Blight, however, when he gets to Chapter 4, “The Logic and the Trump of Jubilee.” This chapter, easily the most riveting of the book, is a historical tour-de-force that deftly weaves the two manuscripts into the broader story of what emancipation meant to African-Americans in 1863. In a passage characteristic of his exquisite writing, Blight notes that for newly-emancipated blacks, “historical time had collapsed; the biblical exodus and the present moment might now be truly the same story. It did not matter at that moment what the document [the Emancipation Proclamation] said; pent-up dreams and emotions exploded in a celebration that lasted all night.” A similar response can be seen in Washington’s narrative; the former slave recorded that he “was dumb with joy and could only thank God and laugh” when he was told by Union soldiers that he was a free man.

Yet Blight does not choose the facile route of merely celebrating emancipation along with the former slaves he chronicles. “We do a disservice to the experience of the freedpeople,” he notes, “by remembering only their music of spiritual victory and not the physical agony through which they passed.” Turnage’s lifelong struggle merely to survive in the new world of his freedom is prime evidence of the hardships that awaited slaves after their emancipation. Washington, too, met tragedy in the slums of Washington, D.C.; his young sun and namesake died in the disease-ridden tenement in which his family lived. “The costs of freedom were high,” Blight concludes mournfully.

Though A Slave No More is an original and sound work of scholarship, it is clearly written to appeal also to lay readers. The narratives are, of course, important as heretofore-unutilized primary sources, and they provide important evidence for scholars seeking to reconstruct a picture of the wartime slave experience; indeed, Blight’s close textual analysis performs much of this work already, though he can be accused of occasional credulity for his uncritical acceptance of the unlikely details of Turnage’s escapes. But the author’s choice of audience also reflects the degree to which A Slave No More is a human story; the tale of these men’s incessant drive for freedom and then for respectability is timeless and deeply moving. “Both [men] had so much to forget in order to build their new lives,” writes Blight. “But they would do so in two extraordinary acts of remembering. Perhaps they could never quite realize their tomorrow until they had told the story of their yesterday. … Turnage and Washington had been lost. But now, as they surely wished, they are found.” Found indeed, and it is this reviewer’s hope that many Americans will read and cherish these stories of these two men, to whose memories Blight has so superbly done justice. John Washington and Wallace Turnage are worth remembering, not only for what they suffered but for what they created out of that suffering. For his ability to understand and contextualize the enormity of what these men did, Blight deserves both our gratitude and our respect.




Anonymous Anonymous on 1/02/2008 3:08 AM:

Blight was also on Fresh Air (the audio is probably on the NPR/Fresh Air website), along with some of the descendants of one (?) of the slaves.

It was a fascinating interview.


Blogger Unknown on 1/02/2008 4:59 AM:

I'll do you one better -- I get to watch him give a paper in three days (at the AHA). I'm a little starstruck.


Anonymous Anonymous on 11/14/2008 2:52 PM:

Professor Blight is a thorougly knowledgable scholar on the Civil War era. His gift for synthesizing text and creating narratives is surpassed only by his ability to lecture on the subject.

To anyone studying at Yale that has not taken his course yet. Do so.

To anyone merely interested in his class, it is offered online as part of the Open Course Program at Yale and I highly encourage anyone interested to look into the program.


Blogger Unknown on 11/14/2008 3:42 PM:

Anonymous, having now seen Blight speak in person -- I hadn't when I wrote up this review -- I'm inclined to agree with you. He's amazing.