Category Archives: Robert Montgomery Bird

The Creeps, Part 2

UCLA’s news service fills in a little more of the backstory regarding Robert Montgomery Bird‘s Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself, an unusual novel first published in 1836 and recently reissued by New York Review Books. (I blogged about it a month ago.) This quote, from the UCLA prof who discovered the book, Christopher Looby, pushes the book a little higher up the to-read pile:

“‘Sheppard Lee’ feels more like an example of magical realism or postmodernism than antebellum literature,” said Looby, who has taught at UCLA since 2001. “It seems like it could have been written today. It’s really ahead of its time.”
Teasingly, NYRB editor Edwin Frank suggests in the story that I could get to the task right now–thanks to the book being in the public domain, it should be readily available online. Not quite: Nothing on Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive (though they have some of his other works). There’s a complete edition of Volume 2 on Google Books, but only a limited preview of Volume 1.

The Creeps

New York Review Books has a habit of pulling me away from my regularly scheduled reading by putting out something that’s unfamiliar to me, well-written, and hits a lot of my pleasure points–last year Kenneth Fearing‘s The Big Clock, Elaine Dundy‘s The Dud Avocado, and The Stories of J. F. Powers all did a number on me. The Philadelphia Enquirer Inquirer points to another promising title, Robert Montgomery Bird‘s 1836 novel about metempsychosis, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself. From Edward Pettit‘s review:

Poe wrote that the novel is “a farce of very pretty finesse.” True, but Bird’s humor is also sharp, even cynically driven. He leaves no social group (not even slaves) unscathed. Although I am suspicious of his characterization of the issues of slavery, it fits the broader purpose of his novel, which is to dissipate the delusions of a corrupt society. Sheppard Lee’s imposture of his fellow citizens mirrors the false pretenses of a nation. Bird’s richly nuanced novel wears the dramatic mask of comedy, but underneath lies the mask of tragedy.

(Side note: Christopher Looby, who wrote the introduction to the book, was my BA thesis advisor.)