Plagiarama!: William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions

Plagiarama!: William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions

by Geoffrey Sanborn


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William Wells Brown (1814–1884) was a vocal abolitionist, a frequent antagonist of Frederick Douglass, and the author of Clotel, the first known novel by an African American. He was also an extensive plagiarist, copying at least 87,000 words from close to 300 texts. In this critical study of Brown's work and legacy, Geoffrey Sanborn offers a novel reading of the writer's plagiarism, arguing the act was a means of capitalizing on the energies of mass-cultural entertainments popularized by showmen such as P. T. Barnum. By creating the textual equivalent of a variety show, Brown animated antislavery discourse and evoked the prospect of a pleasurably integrated world.

Brown's key dramatic protagonists were the "spirit of capitalization"—the unscrupulous double of Max Weber's spirit of capitalism—and the "beautiful slave girl," a light-skinned African American woman on the verge of sale and rape. Brown's unsettling portrayal of these figures unfolded within a riotous patchwork of second-hand texts, upset convention, and provoked the imagination. Could a slippery upstart lay the groundwork for a genuinely interracial society? Could the fetishized image of a not-yet-sold woman hold open the possibility of other destinies? Sanborn's analysis of pastiche and plagiarism adds new depth to the study of nineteenth-century culture and the history of African American literature, suggesting modes of African American writing that extend beyond narratives of necessity and purpose, characterized by the works of Frederick Douglass and others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231174428
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Geoffrey Sanborn is Henry S. Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English at Amherst College. His books include The Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader (1998) and Whipscars and Tattoos: “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Moby-Dick,” and the Maori (2011).

Table of Contents

1. Plagiarama!
2. The Spirit of Capitalization
3. The Aesthetic of Attractions
4. The Beautiful Slave Girl
5. The Sound of Fame
Appendix A: Plagiarism in Brown's Works
Appendix B: Bibliography of Plagiarized Works

What People are Saying About This

Ezra Greenspan

For years, critics have word-danced around William Wells Brown's habitual acts of 'lifting,' 'borrowing,' and 'adapting' printed texts without attribution. Not Geoffrey Sanborn, who exuberantly names Brown's signature aesthetic practice 'plagiarama!' Dazzlingly original and unvaryingly astute in explicating Brown's performance art, Sanborn also has bigger game in mind, demonstrating the centrality of literary experimentation and unfettered theatricality—often remote from supposed origins in slavery and race—in early African American writing. Altogether impressive, Plagiarama! stages an eye-opening critical performance.

Mat Johnson

How fitting that William Wells Brown, the first African American novelist, would be revealed to be the living incarnation of Brer Rabbit. A riveting read, generously researched and provocative, not just in terms of William Wells Brown but in terms of how we think about the timeless issue of creative plagiarism. In Plagiarama! Geoffrey Sanborn once again shows himself to be a rare treasure: a brilliant critic who is also a thrilling storyteller. This is literary critical history at its best.

Lara Cohen

Through an impressive feat of research, Geoffrey Sanborn has discovered that William Wells Brown lifted a major portion of his writing from other sources. Yet far from evincing a lack of creativity, Sanborn argues how Brown's plagiarisms take an extravagantly transformative approach to language. By setting different texts end to end, Brown stirs and dilates public culture, sounding the impossible in the known world.

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