Semper Vigilans: Slavery & the Antebellum Literature of Surveillance


Review of Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre in Antebellum United States Literature, by Kelly Ross

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.


Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, famously identified his predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe, as the “father of the detective tale.” Poe had “covered” the genre’s “limits so completely,” Doyle mused, “that…the writer…sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him” (quoted in Ross 49). But what of the footmarks that Poe himself stepped into? If we credit paternity to the dissolute white Southerner, what can we say about the genre’s other, unacknowledged line of descent? 

According to Kelly Ross’ alternative genealogy, Poe’s “detective fiction emerges from the widespread imaginative engagement with modes of surveillance and detection inherent to slavery in the antebellum United States” (50). Ross is not the first to recognize the importance of slavery and anti-Black racism to Poe’s oeuvre. Figuring “the oppression of the Negro” as the “shadow athwart our national life,” Richard Wright observed that “if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” Perhaps it did. Generations of scholars—led by Toni Morrison, Terence Whalen, Teresa Goddu, Colin Dayan, and Elise Lemire—have explored the white supremacist logics of Poe’s gothic imagination. Others, notably M. Michelle Robinson and Justin Gifford, have located the origins of detective fiction in slavery and its literature. Going even farther back, scholars such as Marion Wilson Starling, Frances Smith Foster, Richard Slotkin, William Andrews, Daniel Cohen, Daniel Williams, and myself have traced the slave narrative back to the popular gallows literature of colonial and early national America.

A culmination of this work, Ross’s Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre treats criminal confessions, the slave narrative, and detective fiction as distinct genres within a broader antebellum literature of surveillance. Ross draws less on Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir (1975), however, than on more recent theories of the visual culture of race and slavery. Theorizing the “Birth of the Prison,” Foucault’s Discipline and Punish made a case study of Jeremy Bentham’s design for a Panopticon, a spoke-and-wheel arrangement that enabled one anonymous watcher to monitor numerous prisoners. For Foucault, the Panopticon illustrated how physical punishment by the sovereign came to be replaced by a disciplinary regime that “induces in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201). 

The English title elides the visual element of Foucault’s theory of surveillance, which literally means watching from above. The more apropos English terms, supervision and oversight, evoke not only the management of laborers but also the long history of policing subordinates. In England and its colonies, this surveillance was conducted by the overseers of, first, the poor and then the enslaved. Nicholas Mirzoeff’s The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011) identifies “plantation slavery” as “the foundational moment” of this coercive “visuality,” as well as of its subversive analogue, “countervisuality.” African Americanist scholars tend to prefer the term “sousveillance,” a neologism coined in 2003 by Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Welman to characterize the strategies that seek to resist or counter oppressive supervision. If the prefix sous- suggests watching from below or underneath, it also connotes subordinate status (“sous-chef,” “sous-lieutenant”). In her influential Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015), sociologist Simone Browne demonstrates the centrality of “racializing surveillance” and “dark sousveillance” to racial formation in the U.S. Jasmine Nicole Cobb’s virtuosic Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (2015) illustrates how the “peculiarly ‘ocular’ institution” of race slavery in the U.S. enabled the surveillance of hypervisible Black subjects by often invisible, disembodied white observers through print and other visual technologies (34). 

Bringing these theories of visuality to bear on antebellum U.S. literature, Ross discovers a far less schematic (yet still intensely racialized) interplay of surveillance and sousveillance, invisibility and hypervisibility. Noting that the Foucauldian model “collapses two separate issues: the power relations between watcher and watched and the visibility and nonvisibility of the watcher,” Ross finds Black and white authors, narrators, and characters stepping in and out of these roles—shifts that have profound consequences for both American literary history and the politics of race and slavery in the U.S. (128).

First, Ross offers a revisionist reading of the antebellum slave narrative. To understand the politics of visuality in this genre, Ross insists, we need to consider “the prehistory of the abolitionist slavery on trial campaign,” attending in particular to how narratives of the 1820s and early 1830s “use espionage tropes to present the individual as an active agent with expertise about slavery’s surveillance system” (33, 5). As the person who literally wrote the book on the former approach, I find Ross’s refinement largely persuasive. My first book, Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism and Print Culture (2007), argued that white abolitionist publicists like Theodore Dwight Weld and William Lloyd Garrison appealed to American popular legal consciousness by figuring slavery as a crime: framing the slavery debate as a trial before the court of public opinion, they presented themselves as advocates for enslaved people and the slave narrative as victim testimony (see also Dwight McBride, Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony, 2001; Janet Neary, Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives, 2016). 

Given the disproportionate representation of condemned African Americans in early American gallows literature, Slavery on Trial suggests, the antebellum slave narrative enabled Black first-person subjects authoritatively to reposition themselves in U.S. law and print culture, from confessing criminals to testifying eyewitnesses. Ross deepens our understanding of one of the early, influential works of the genre, Charles Ball’s Slavery in the United States (1836), by noting the formerly enslaved author’s emphasis on his involvement in covert operations around the War of 1812. Ball, Ross argues, “frames the conflict between the slave system and antislavery activists as a war, rather than a trial” and himself as “a spy, not a witness” (28, 21). The latter is not necessarily an either/or proposition, however. During the 1835 New York murder trial of the so-called Prophet Matthias, sensationalist print portrayals of Isabella van Wagenen (later known as Sojourner Truth) revealed how the early American trope of the Black criminal merged with the English trope of the spying servant to produce the new trope of the slave witness. Indeed, Ross finds, in “the second edition of Ball’s narrative, published in association with the institutional abolitionist movement in 1837… Ball’s spy frame is overlaid by his…editors’ witness frame” (30).

Whether fashioned as spy, witness, or both, the enslaved watcher challenged the supervisory regime of slavery—not merely within the text, but, far more importantly, through its publication. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) recounts how the pseudonymous Linda Brent escaped from her captors by hiding for seven years in an attic crawl space in the very North Carolina community in which she was enslaved. “Positioning herself as an unseen voyeur watching those who had previously surveilled her,” Jacobs leaves little doubt that Brent’s “elevated view is not supervisory but impotent,” as she settles for “managing surveillants rather than escaping surveillance” (107, 108). 

Yet, by publishing her personal narrative, Jacobs joined more influential authors like Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown in the ultimately successful print campaign to end white Northerners’ tolerance for and complicity in slavery. The fact that the fugitive Douglass had to embark for Great Britain immediately upon publishing his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) illustrates Ross’s argument that “invisibility shields sousveillants, but to make changes, whether individually or structurally, the information gathered by watching from below must be made public,” exposure that creates “special risks for sousveillants of color, who are already more vulnerable because of their hypervisibility” (128). 

This insight informs Ross’s brilliant reassessment of the first slave narrative published by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), The Narrative of James Williams (1838). A proslavery Alabama newspaper editor challenged the genre’s credibility when he revealed not only the narrative’s numerous factual inaccuracies but its author’s criminal past. Ross’s analysis of Williams’s notoriously fraught Narrative serves as a reminder that surveillance of African Americans did not stop at the Mason-Dixon line. Building on Hank Trent’s revelatory research, Ross argues that Williams’s careful suppression of parts of his story and modification of others reflects the fugitive’s keen awareness that he was subject to the scrutiny of his abolitionist sponsors. “Williams was practicing sousveillance when he dictated his story” to his amanuensis, the Quaker poet John G. Whittier, and his AASS colleagues, Ross points out (32). In its very composition and transmission, The Narrative of James Williams performs the “vigilance” that was the watchword of Black activists who sought to resist the “elaborate public/private partnership” of racist policing in the antebellum North (35). 

Ross argues that the “inconspicuous detection” practiced by enslaved characters, narrators, and authors in the antebellum literature of surveillance yielded the “conspicuous detection” performed by Poe’s M. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and other stories (52). Beginning not with “Murders” but with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), Ross finds Poe’s only novel rehearsing the genre’s “dialectical” racialized politics of visuality (51). In the first half of the story, the eponymous white narrator learns the sousveillance practices of the enslaved when he stows away in a ship’s hold and then participates in a successful mutiny. As Ross astutely points out, however, “Pym’s ability to detect decreases with his affiliation with whiteness” (67). Having rejoined the white master class, Pym participates in an imperialist mission on the island of Tsalal and is blindsided when the dark-skinned, dissembling natives conspire to resist invasion by massacring their would-be colonizers. The story ends with the once-again fugitive Pym’s vision of a gigantic, shrouded white human figure who, Ross argues, anticipates Dupin by embodying detective fiction’s “fantasy of unreciprocated surveillance” (76). If the visual politics of slavery and anti-Black racism in the U.S. is characterized by a dialectic of mass surveillance and collective sousveillance, Ross suggests, detective fiction like “Murders in the Rue Morgue” gamifies this dynamic by individualizing the systemic threat of violence (a rampaging killer “Ourang-Otang”), thereby enabling its speedy mastery by an all-seeing yet inscrutable white detective (Dupin).

Perhaps most illuminating is Ross’s interpretation of a collection of canonical texts about slave rebellions that are neither slave narratives nor detection fiction, yet partake of both genres. In stunningly original readings of Thomas Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), Douglass’s “Heroic Slave” (1853), and Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855), Ross considers the different ways in which these works stage the crisis of “white oversight” that occurs when white observers discover themselves to be targets of “the Black gaze” (76). In all three stories, this reversal is accompanied by narrative instability in the form of perspectival shifts: Gray’s blurring of his own voice into that of Nat Turner; Douglass’s switch from a third-person omniscient narrator to that of the racist white sailor, Tom Grant; and Melville’s abrupt insertion of Benito Cereno’s deposition. “Unlike the authoritative reconstructive narrative provided by the conspicuous detective in the Dupin tales,” Ross contends, these ruptures alert readers to “the problem of reconstructing narratives about the past when the stabilizing authority of white oversight has been lost” (101). This process continues today. Ross concludes her study by briefly considering instances of Black sousveillance that have proven most devastating to the current era’s retrospective narratives of authoritative white detection: bystander videos of police misconduct and, specifically, Darnella Frazier’s Pulitzer-cited video of Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd.

Slavery, Surveillance, and Genre in Antebellum United States Literature offers theoretically astute, historicist literary criticism that is both compulsively readable and admirably economical in presentation. One small quibble: like many nineteenth-century Americanist literary scholars, Ross relies rather too exclusively on Brian Wagner’s indispensable Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery (2009). One might wish for a bit more thorough elaboration of the police power, such as that offered by Markus Dubber’s Police Power: Patriarchy and the Foundations of American Government (2005). Nevertheless, Ross’s study is a valuable addition to a range of recent works that examine early Black encounters with and critiques of the police power, notably Adam Malka’s The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (2018), Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction (2021) and Sal Nicolazzo’s Vagrant Figures: Law, Literature, and the Origins of the Police (2021). Thus, although Ross does not present this tight, persuasive study as a contribution to legal humanities, it will prove richly rewarding to scholars of law and culture.




Posted on 26 May 2023

JEANNINE DELOMBARD is Professor of English and Affiliated Faculty with the History Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently completing a book that examines how Black authors and litigants activated the dignitarian logic of tort law to define, and thus assert, civil rights over the long nineteenth century.