The rhetoric of prefacing

Once again, I have been caught up in the introduction.  Though only a page long, I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book so far. This kind of opening validation of legitimacy and originality is something that we have seen in like, half of the narratives we have encountered.

I’m interested in this focus on legitimacy that seems to be built into the text. I know that when we discussed equiano, we in part discussed the legitimacy of his text, and in the end we concluded that whether or not the work was what it claimed to be was irrelevant because it had the same effect on us as readers, but this trend of validating prefaces suggests that the narratives themselves are preoccupied with their own legitimacy. 

I am not sure whether to chalk this up to Equiano and Prince both being slave-narratives and seeking to situate themselves in a place of credibility for the sake of potentially affecting change. (which is a distinct possibility, considering that in the preface of Mary Prince direct reference is made to the abolitionist movement, which simultaneously acknowledges the impact that a text like it will likely have on its readers, and denies that this is the intent of the printing of the history).

However, there is also the case of Humphry Clinker, the fictional epistolary novel, which also includes a validating preface, situating the story in the contemporary literature of the time, and preparing the reader to interpret the following narrative as an actual account of factual events.

End/foot-notes in all three of these texts further demonstrate the desire of these texts to be ‘factual’, further contextualizing them in historically verifiable terms through reference to documented names and dates and other literary/historical work.

While I understand the need of the slave narratives to establish their credibility, particularly being direct accounts from 2 people of a categorically disregarded/disempowered race. However when you through in Tobias Smollet and his light-hearted, fictional text, it seems to suggest that this trend is a part of the overall attitudes of the time period. It seems plausible too, considering the neo-classical/enlightenment ideologies in circulation in the Georgian era, which were interested in analysis and fact.


3 thoughts on “The rhetoric of prefacing

  1. Hi Kira – I enjoyed reading your comments and connections between the three books’ introductions, especially its purpose of validating and legitimizing the stories. One difference I noticed in the Preface of this week’s book is that it’s the only one where we don’t actually hear from the author. Smollett situates Humphrey Clinker, Equanio introduces the letters/references to his character, but Thomas Pringle vouches for and legitimizes Mary Prince’s narrative. In fact, the only part that comes from Mary is her History since Mr. Pringle also authored the “Supplement to the History of Mary Prince,” that is included after her narrative, where he contextualizes and elaborates on it. Furthermore, although Mr. Pringle writes that Mary’s “exact expressions and particular phraseology” is kept, of the three books it’s the most likely to have been altered (1). I wonder if this is an example of gender norms and differences because Mr. Pringle is acting like an intermediary between Mary and the reader/society. Great post!

  2. Thanks! I totally agree with your interpretation of the difference between the prefaces too. I was thinking of that this morning as i finished the book. Last night when i wrote my post i hadn’t yet read the supplement that is included at the end. I think that the material in the supplement really supports your idea about the importance of gender. Particularly the portion in which Mr. Pringle refutes the letter written by Mr. Wood, and does the point to point argument in the defense of Mary’s character and behavior. In Equiano, though a slave and a black, and though he expends much effort in his narrative to validate his story and soften the conveyance of unsavory information to his audience, the truthfulness of his narrative is never called into question. With Mary Prince on the other hand, the inclusion of the supplement actually serves to completely undermine the legitimacy of what she has said about her experience, insofar as it communicates to the reader that she is not valued enough in society to be taken at her word. I think that this definitely reflects the heirarchy of class at work in the Georgian Era, which in this case seems to reflect an order of: White man> White woman> Black/slave woman. This makes me curious about race and gender and privilege and how these different types of people really relate to each other in society. I am particularly interested in where white women fit into this equation. What was their status and what kind of agency were they allowed, say in comparison to a free black man?

    On another note, i think your comment here about how her narrative was transcribed by not one, but two intermediary figures, is also a very intriguing point, and bears further contemplation. In the preface, and again at the end of the actual narrative in a small aside, Pringle admits that the text of the story has been altered from the original, as told by Mary Prince herself, in order to make it understandable to a white audience. Not only does this further support the othering/discrediting of Mary Prince as a black/slave woman, but it brings our recurring theme of ‘control over language’ into play. Equiano’s mastery of language is arguably his greatest weapon against his own enslavement and disempowerment, both within the narrative and as the author of the text. Mary Prince, on the other hand, is so out of control of language that it requires two intermediaries to communicate her story to the public readers. This, to me, says that, in addition to her gender, she is disempowered by her inability to be fully articulate and elloquent in her use of language.

    (Quickly, another thought on gender… I think it is interesting also that, though Mrs. Pringle is credited with taking down the dictation of Mary Prince, MR. Pringle is the editor, and authors both the preface and the supplement. This to me confirms the relative position of gentry men and women by suggesting that Mrs. Pringle’s voice/word would not be sufficient to legitimize such a horrific and scandalous narrative.)

  3. This is such an interesting line of thought that I had never considered while reading these books! Didn’t Daniel Defoe also claim that Robinson Crusoe was a work of nonfiction?

    I’m wondering if, in the 18th century, reading fiction might have been frowned upon… much as watching soap operas is stigmatized today? Today, tv producers seem to be finding ways of making basic soap opera plots seem less a part of the genre by changing air times, increasing production budgets, removing dramatic sound scores, etc while maintaining the same basic tropes. It’s as thought they are saying, “It’s ok to watch this… it’s not a soap opera!”

    If reading fiction was looked down on in the 1700’s, it would make sense that books would begin by stating their factuality and why reading the book would be intellectually edifying. I think it might have served to make the book more respectable. This would explain why even fictional authors (Smollett and Defoe) claim factuality.

    Yet with Mary Prince, I think there may have been an even more important reason. This book brought about law suits, and the editor may have anticipated this. After publication, a magazine editor published a scathing article questioning the morality not only of Mary Prince, but of the entire Pringle family for their involvement. Pringle sued for libel and won. Then John Wood sued Pringle for libel and won a much larger amount. The truth of this book was not only important to its influence on the slavery debate, but was also of legal importance for the people involved.

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