William Aldridge’s and Samuel Whitchurch’s Competing Versions of John Marrant’s Life Story
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In this presentation, I maintain that book history offers important ways to trace the packaging, circulation, and consumption of early black Atlantic texts and lives. To begin a more comprehensive interdisciplinary initiative that fuses archival work, book history, and early black Atlantic literature, I attend to the key differences in various prose and verse editions of the best- selling conversion and captivity narrative, The Narrative of the Lord’s Most Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black, published both during and after the itinerant preacher’s lifetime (1755-1791). Specifically, I analyze relevant parts from the authorized fourth edition of Marrant’s narrative along with the unauthorized prose and verse editions written by the Methodist ministers, William Aldridge and Samuel Whitchurch. Aldridge and Whitchurch created versions of Marrant’s life based on his oral remarks on his conversion at his ordination in a Huntingdonian chapel in Bath. The differences found in Aldridge’s and Whitchurch’s respective texts underscore an editorial tension in the consistent repackaging of Marrant’s life story. Whereas Aldridge’s prose editions document Marrant’s captivity by and sustained interactions with the Cherokees, Whitchurch’s poem, The Negro Convert (c. 1785), boasts that the speaker of his poem will not “sing” of “Indians.” For Whitchurch, the sea and sailors–not the North American landscape and Native American peoples–provided a more realistic space for pursuing Marrant’s commitment to Christianity following conversion. This presentation also attends to parts of Whitchurch’s neglected poem, David Dreadnought, the Reformed English Sailor (1812). Whitchurch’s poem focuses on the maritime adventures of David Dreadnought, John Marrant, and David Henderson and the conversion narratives of this diverse group of mariners. Whitchurch wrote Dreadnought—and used Marrant’s life—to frame empire building as a providential act with the absorption of blacks (and Scots) and established a specific type of “imagined community” for early-nineteenth-century British readers.