Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: January 15, 2008
Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself
by Robert Montgomery Bird, introduction by Christopher Looby
Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee is a scathingly humorous and utterly original novel out of Andrew Jackson’s America, the story of an incorrigible loafer who inadvertently discovers the power to project his soul into dying men’s bodies and to take over their lives. So gifted, Sheppard Lee sets off in pursuit of happiness, only to find himself thwarted at every turn. In growing desperation he shifts from body to body, now a rich man and now poor man, now a madman and now a slave, a bewildered spirit trapped in the dark maze of American identity.by Robert Montgomery Bird, introduction by Christopher Looby
Sheppard Lee is an antebellum novel like no other: a psychological picaresque in which the narrator survives the death of his body only to possess a succession of corpses as a spirit. Moving up and down the social and economic ladder in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Virginia, Sheppard Lee embodies, among other identities, a gouty brewer, a miserly moneylender, and a slave. Equal parts comedy of manners, satire of sentimentality, and critique of antebellum political culture, Sheppard Lee also offers a vivid portrait of early American life.
— Justine Murison, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
An unjustly forgotten masterpiece, Sheppard Lee inspired Poe's tales of metempsychosis, 'The Gold Bug,' and the juiciest parts of Melville's Israel Potter. It also gave Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom his name. This novel of lost bodies and wandering spirits, with slavery's transformations of persons into things as background, introduces that 'other' American Renaissance,Aeione of surreal disguises and hidden taints—which depended not on fiction but on history for its most gothic plots.
— Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University
Like Philothea, this novel is an original in American Belles Lettres at least; and these deviations, however indecisive, from the more beaten paths of imitation, look well for our future literary prospects...We must regard Sheppard Lee, upon the whole, as a very clever...jeu d'esprit.
— Edgar Allan Poe