By Robert Montgomery Bird
by Christopher Looby
NYRB Classics. 425 pp. $16.95
Reviewed by Edward Pettit
So, you've been looking for an early 19th-century novel about metempsychosis? Look no further. Robert Montgomery Bird's
Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself
is back in print. What? You are not an ardent follower of tales of the metempsychotic? Let me explain. Metempsychosis is the transference of the soul or spirit from one body to another after death. Sounds like the kind of story Edgar Allan Poe might write. In fact, Poe himself reviewed Bird's novel when it was first published in 1836:
"We must regard 'Sheppard Lee,' upon the whole, as a very clever, and not altogether unoriginal, jeu d'esprit. Its incidents are well conceived, and related with force, brevity, and a species of directness which is invaluable in certain cases of narration."
There is even a blurb from Poe on the back cover of the newly printed edition, and Poe also mined Bird's plot for one of his greatest stories, "The Gold Bug."
Sheppard Lee is an indolent gentleman farmer in New Jersey who bemoans his dwindling finances, but can't muster enough energy to change his fortunes. When he dies in a foolhardy attempt to locate buried pirate treasure, his ghost discovers another deceased man, a rich Philadelphia brewer who has broken his neck jumping a fence while hunting. Sheppard wishes he could have led this rich man's life, and immediately his ghostly spirit enters the dead man's body.
Sheppard retains the memories of his own existence, but he also fully becomes the other man, gradually recovering that man's identity and memories as he walks in his shoes and interacts with his family and friends. However, Sheppard soon learns that all-important lesson about the color of grass on the other side of the socioeconomic fence. What follows are several picaresque adventures among the social strata of antebellum America, as Sheppard Lee hops from one dead body to the next.
The lives of others beckon to Sheppard like the desiderata of his own unfulfilled dreams. After the brewer, he metamorphoses into a spendthrift dandy on the hunt for a wealthy girl to marry. Then he enters the body of Philadelphia's most notorious moneylender. Next he is a wealthy Quaker philanthropist who can't give away his money quickly enough. Sheppard learns too late that each new existence has its own unique set of miseries. His metempsychotic gift becomes a curse. Sheppard is like a comic version of the Wandering Jew, roaming the streets and country lanes of a corrupt nation, solace never at hand. He is beaten, robbed and swindled.
After his Quaker self is kidnapped by Southern slavery sympathizers who mistake him for an abolitionist, Sheppard's only recourse is to jump into the body of a dead slave named Tom. Bird's satiric romp now takes a grim turn as Tom becomes involved in planning a slave insurrection on his plantation. The political and social humor is easy to swallow when the wealthy and corrupt receive their comeuppance, but slavery is a bitter pill.
Bird distrusts everyone who would attempt to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden. His Quaker philanthropist is a fool who ruins himself trying to help those who scorn his charity. His abolitionists are scaremongers, sowing discord that will erupt in violence. Whereas early in the novel it's often hard to interpret Bird's political stances - some of his lines are pitch-perfect irony - when it comes to the effects of an abolitionist pamphlet in the hands of slaves, Bird pulls no punches. Humor leaves his pen and bloody carnage follows. It seems clear that Bird had no love for abolitionists or their cause.
It's not that Bird is pro-slavery. As a dramatist he wrote a heroic account of the Roman slave revolt led by Spartacus and declared that the play could never be performed in the South without its author being lynched. What scares Bird is the very real threat of violence over the slave question. He already sees enough misery and injustice in his society. The threat of a slave insurrection is too horrific for him to accept as a valid solution.
Poe wrote that the novel is "a farce of very pretty finesse." True, but Bird's humor is also sharp, even cynically driven. He leaves no social group (not even slaves) unscathed. Although I am suspicious of his characterization of the issues of slavery, it fits the broader purpose of his novel, which is to dissipate the delusions of a corrupt society. Sheppard Lee's imposture of his fellow citizens mirrors the false pretenses of a nation. Bird's richly nuanced novel wears the dramatic mask of comedy, but underneath lies the mask of tragedy.