[Originally posted on the American Literature in the World conference and anthology site, as part of "News and Field Reports," accessible here.]
Over the past year or so, the incredible commercial and critical success of Steve McQueen's film adaptation of Solomon Northup's Twelve Years of Slave has made the slave narrative a bestseller for the second time. While McQueen may have claimed to rescue Northup's testimony from the dark depths of American history, Twelve Years a Slave sold 10,000 copies in its first month of release in 1853 and 30,000 copies within two years. In the wake of McQueen's stellar success, the 2012 Penguin Classics edition of Twelve Years a Slave has sold over 150,000 digital and print copies.
Ned Cobb is the new Solomon Northup. In 1974, the National Book Award for general nonfiction went to All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, the dictated autobiography of an Alabama sharecropper named Ned Cobb. Cobb's epic memoir was taken down and compiled by a man named Theodore Rosengarten, then a graduate student at Harvard. All God's Dangers was published to great acclaim, only to fall into the utter pits of obscurity within just a few short decades. Last week, New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner published an article on the work, lamenting its profound absence in the canon of the deep South. Thanks to Garner's piece, The Life of Nate Shaw is once again a bestseller: It has jumped to No. 1 on Amazon's best seller's list after its sales numbers have increased by 1,542,000 percent.
The book received glowing praise upon its initial publication, the New York Times Book Review calling Shaw "a black Homer, bursting with his black Odyssey.” Garner's re-appraisal echoes this admiration: "[All God's Dangers] is superb — both serious history and a serious pleasure, a story that reads as if Huddie Ledbetter spoke it while W. E. B. Du Bois took dictation. That it’s been largely forgotten is bad for it, but worse for us."
The resonances between Ned Cobb's and Solomon Northup's memoirs do not end with sales figures. Indeed, All God's Dangers could and should be understood as an historical remnant of the American slave narrative tradition. Although Northup was educated and literature, his autobiography was dictated to an (white) amanuensis-editor named David Wilson. This thoroughly mediated, collaborated production of enslaved testimony was not at all unique —such renowned American or Black Atlantic slave narratives as those attributed to Briton Hammon (1760), Ukawsaw Gronnosiaw (1772), John Marrant (1785), Mary Prince (1831), Nat Turner (1831), and Sojourner Truth (1850), were based on oral accounts. What perhaps distinguishes Cobb's epic tale from his antebellum antecedents, and specifically Twelve Years a Slave, is that the author(s) reveals the editorial processes behind its production.
As Rosengarten writes in his preface to the book: "This big book is the autobiography of an illiterate man" (xiii). In earnest and almost tender prose, he describes the lengthy conversations with Cobb that ultimately led to All God's Dangers. Rosengarten recalls: "We would sit under the eave of his tool shed and talk for two to six hours per session. [...] When it rained we would move our chairs inside the shed. There, in near dark, cramped among baskets, broken-bottomed chairs, sacks of feed and fertilizer, worn harnesses and tools, Shaw enacted his most fiery stories. I am thankful for all the rain we had, for it moved us to a natural theater and pounded the tin roof like a delirious crowd inciting an actor to the peak of his energy" (xviii). While the historically and politically problematic paradigm of the black narrator/white sponsor has in many instances confounded the interpretation of antebellum slave narratives—especially concerning questions of authenticity, historical accuracy, and authorial voice—the social collaboration behind The Life of Nate Shaw is thus laid bare.
And so perhaps the evocation of Cobb as "black Homer" has some sense in it. All God's Dangers signals the longue durée of the slave narrative tradition in the United States—its re-emergence, afterlife, or even its continual presence in American letters. But Ned Cobb's memoir and its recent "rediscovery" also harken back to the oldest traditions of Western literature, the Homeric epic. Scholars have debated for decades—really, for centuries—the true identity of the figure we call Homer and the exact nature and domain of his authorship. Who was Homer? Was he (or she) an actual historical figure? Were the Iliad and Odyssey composed by a single author or by multiple authors? Was the Homeric epic the written product of solitary genius or the collective inheritance of a much older oral tradition? Ned Cobb's return to literary and historical inquiry is a prime occasion to consider such lasting questions.