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Chapter 5 - Overhearing the African American Novel, 1850–1865

from Part II - Generic Transitions and Textual Circulation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 April 2021

Teresa Zackodnik
Affiliation:
University of Alberta
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Summary

This chapter considers Bahktin’s theories of the novel not only as heteroglossic but as defining this as a genre of overhearing or snooping about private life in a public form. It contributes to an emergent body of scholarship on the sonic in African American literature that newly attends to the ways in which other literary texts not merely were models in a by-now thoroughly debunked dismissal of Black aesthetics as imitative but were inscribed as “overhead.” Both the early African American novel and slave narratives politicized this defining generic characteristic, exposing the “compromised privacy and surveilled speech” endemic to slavery as preconditions of “insurgent listening.” Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave, Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, and Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative are read through an attention to the sonic and overhearing that reveals the novel as both a contested genre and a way of “representing contested space and power.” Overhearing stages a dialectical politics of withholding and risky disclosure, the policing and violations the aural made possible, and the emergence of the early African American novel from this nexus of “a space of ‘conflicted listening.’”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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