February 25, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.
On the back cover of the manuscript of his prison memoir, which he completed in New York’s Auburn state jail sometime after 1858, Austin Reed pasted a clipping of the third chapter of Lamentations: “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath … / He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. / He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.” Around the thirtieth verse, the tone shifts to one of reassurance—“For the Lord will not cast off forever”—and then, by the fifty-fifth, to one of retributive anger. The last verses Reed excerpted are a plea “out of the low dungeon” for God to avenge the poem’s narrator against his enemies: “Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord.”
These lines suggest the tone and shape of a literary genre: a lament in which sorrow coexists with requests for divine vengeance. By placing them at the end of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—acquired by Yale’s rare-book library in 2009 and published last month with helpful editorial comments by the scholar Caleb Smith—Reed was making a strong suggestion about the kind of book he’d written. The text itself, however, is an amalgam of genres that wouldn’t seem to combine: a picaresque memoir in which sermons jostle up against pulpy adventure anecdotes; dutiful recollections of fact move with little notice into fantasies and dreams; radical gestures of black empowerment share the page with the coarsest kinds of racial caricatures; and assertive denunciations of the prison system coexist with passages of meek and guilty self-recrimination. It’s puzzling to make sense of these apparent contradictions—to decide what Reed meant his book to do.
Austin “Rob” Reed was born a freedman in Rochester sometime between 1823 and 1827, soon before the death of his father, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, in 1828. Burrell Reed’s death is the first event in Haunted Convict, and his memory has a violent effect on the book whenever it’s invoked. “His last look” and “his last dying advice” to his son—“that I might be kept from all the snares and temptations of the world, and that I might grow up and become a useful man, that I might be a help meet to my mother when she should be bowing down between the weight of old age”—gave Reed a standard with which he could measure his grim eventual circumstances against the early promise that was his fragile birthright as a freeman. Throughout Haunted Convict, the name of Reed’s father becomes both the son’s religious consciousness, reducing him to tears whenever he hears it out of the mouths of prison chaplains, and his guilty conscience. “No sooner had the clods covered the remains of my father before I forgot his last blessing and dying prayer,” Reed confesses on the book’s second page. “I soon broke through the restraints of my mother and fell a victim to vice and crime.”
The lurid tone of that last sentence is neither incidental nor atypical. In the titles of the nineteenth-century crime pamphlets and prison exposés Smith mentions in his introduction to Reed’s memoir—“Black Jacob,” A Monument of Grace; Secrets of the Mount-Pleasant State Prison; A Voice from Prison; The Question, What Did You Do To Get There? Answered—you recognize a genre of popular American literature mostly lost to history, a body of works designed at once to titillate, moralize, and advocate for reform. Confessional crime pamphlets published under the names of black authors were, according to Smith, “usually written, or heavily edited, by the white ministers and lawyers who ran the penal system.” Even in later reformist autobiographies, the author’s crimes and vices were mined as heavily for shock value as the punishments he received.
We are rediscovering Reed’s book at a moment when much effort is made to distinguish sensationalistic advertisements for the prison system (Lockup) from serious testimonies about its cruelty (among other recent examples, the collection Hell Is a Very Small Place, an anthology of essays on solitary confinement). No distinction so firm held in Reed’s own time, and since he clearly intended his book for a general audience—he punctuates the narration with frequent appeals addressed to an unnamed “reader”—he took what opportunities he could to shock and seduce. It’s hard to know how else to account for the pivotal scene in which a merciless warden chooses to whip Reed and one of his fellow prisoners based on the false testimony of a third inmate—a “thick lip nigger” whose “infernal” blackness Reed contrasts unfavorably with his friend’s innocent whiteness. (“I did not care so much about myself as I did about poor Strongman, whose skin only an hour before was clean from stripes and as white as milk.”) The duplicitous boy ends up mortally injured soon after, and Reed relishes describing how he tormented the dying inmate with images of his damnation. Haunted Convict leaves itself unusually open to the intrusion of new tones and vocabularies, and Reed employed those of the minstrel show as readily as the sermon or the gothic novel.
By the time of that incident, Reed had been imprisoned as a juvenile for roughly a year. One night, in 1933, when Reed couldn’t have been older than eleven, he had disguised himself in one of his sister’s dresses, taken a gun, and stolen at night to the house of a white farmer to whom he’d been indentured after his father’s death. This was a revenge mission. He was justifiably enraged over having been “tied up like a slave and thrash [sic] by the rough hand of a farmer who had no business nor no right nor authority to lay a hand on me”—a memory strong enough, in Reed’s telling, to spur him on even while “in loud peals of thunder I heard my father’s prayer, playing in the flashes of lightning from beneath the ground where he laid.” Reed shot at the farmer, missed, and lit a fire in one of the landowner’s houses.
His sentence was ten years’ confinement in a youth reformatory euphemistically named the House of Refuge. In Reed’s picture, the prison’s supervisors, Mr. Heart and Mr. Wood, come off as reluctant disciplinarians, eager to mentor, educate and Christianize their charges. It’s disquieting to read the generous adjectives Reed piles on Mr. Heart—“a fine venerable old gentlemen”—when the gentleman in question is preparing to give him twenty-five lashes for having escaped and been recaptured. This is Reed in a conciliatory mood. Elsewhere, he didn’t shrink from describing his captors less forgivingly: Heart and Wood’s eventual replacement, “an old Presbyterian minister” named Mr. Terry, turns out to be a petty, tyrannical sadist. His religious pretensions inspire one of Reed’s most uninhibited screeds:
Oh, ye leaders of the blind, be careful while you are on your knees and uttering those sacred words and imploring blessing from above on behalf of those afflicted people whom you are praying for, that the brittle thread of life don’t snap and send you away to take up your portion with hypocrites and unbelievers. Then, with solemn and mournful prayers, you’ll cry for the solid rocks and the firm mountains to fall and crumble down upon your defenseless pates.
Years after his imprisonment, according to a letter he wrote to the House of Refuge in 1895 asking for access to his old records, Reed went “all over the union and telling sinners the troubles and trials that I Have been through and How I came to be a Christian man.” And yet he was already capable of similar speeches in the 1850s, when most of Haunted Convict was probably composed. One way to look at the book is as an anthology of homilies and warnings, from directives not to persecute the Irish (“Oh, you dare devil Yankees, who run down the poor Irishmen as they land upon your docks … ”) to long discourses on the evils of alcohol, which Reed twice personifies as a malevolent king (“Beware of me, for lo, I come in a moment when you think not, with my glittering sword which you see in my hand stained with red … I only make one dash, and you are gone”).
Sometimes these lectures threaten our assumptions about the sort of book we’re reading. Midway through the book, Reed claims to have finally finished disclosing “the mysteries and miseries of the New York House of Refuge.” Now, he wonders “what it is that brings so many boys to this place.” A long list of sins and crimes follows, culminating, unexpectedly, in the moment when the boy’s “little hands grasps [sic] at some novel,” which he consumes “as if he was reading the life and adventures of some great man of the country.” Reed is set off:
I despise the looks of a novel. The cursed infernal things, I can’t bear the sight of one. They are a curse to every one that reads them … They are pack full of lies. They are a store House of lies. I never could take comfort in reading them. Give me the history of some great and good man who is laboring for the welfare of his country, like Wm. H. Seward… That is such a book which I love to read. Novels are books that will bring many a young man to a gloomy cell, and many a weeping mothers to their graves.
What could explain this opprobrium? One way to take it is as a way of protesting, or counterbalancing, the kind of literary performances Reed had found himself pressured to deliver elsewhere in the book. Much in Haunted Convict is transparently invented and embellished—its catalog of “mysteries and miseries” suits the dramatic form of prison and crime narratives popular in the earlier nineteenth century. Reed’s escapades as a juvenile runaway, during which he works reluctantly serving drinks in a gambling den and rescues a white woman from a leering black drifter (another of Reed’s odd gestures towards minstrelsy); his re-imprisonment at Auburn after a young prostitute frames him for theft; his aggressive acts of defiance towards the prison’s director, for which he’s punished with days in solitary and trips to the “showering bath”: one can imagine Reed fretting that his memoir was becoming too much of a novel, a source more of lurid secular entertainments than of spiritual encouragements.
Toward the end of the book, Reed reflects more often on who bore the guilt for his life’s miserable outcome. “Those who might have done me a heap of good turned out to be destroyers,” he insists, “and took away all of the good principles and reasons to which I was endowed with, and the high and noble mind which God had given me have all been destroyed by hard usage and a heavy club.” He was channeling a line of thought that abolitionists at the time eagerly embraced, but which now seems deeply spurious—that black Americans had been so “degraded” by the abuse of whites that over time they’d been rendered somehow spiritually deficient or incomplete. At the same time, with his characteristic mixture of self-excoriation and righteous anger, he was airing his guilt over having written not an edifying book of sermons or a history of a great man, but a book like this—a sensational, novelistic telling of an eventful life. When they sent him to prison, Reed’s “destroyers” also decided the kind of literature he, as a convict rather than a preacher, was qualified to produce.
Surrounded as they are by this sordid material, the sermons, visions, jeremiads, and lamentations that fill Haunted Convict are something like prison breaks themselves—chances for this fundamentally religious author to elude the conventions of the secular genres into which he’d been impressed. Now that those genres have gone largely extinct, his memoir may have finally found a body of readers willing to appreciate it for what it is: a book of prophecy rather than, as Reed might have put it, “a pack full of lies.”
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.
Previous entries in Prison Lit:
- Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
- Christopher Smart, “Jubilate Agno”; John Clare, “Child Harold”
- George Jackson, Soledad Brother
- Madame Roland, The Private Memoirs
- Abdellatif Laâbi, The Reign of Barbarism and Le livre imprévu
- Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
- John Bunyan, Grace Abounding; Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House