Biographies pose a critical problem for any engaged, thoughtful twenty-first century scholar in that they rely on a notion of identity that has been challenged by a host of critical analyses interrogating the modern emergence of the very idea of the “individual.” Carretta avoids such issues entirely here.Instead, he simply takes modern biographical conventions at face value and uses them to tell the story of Equiano’s life and the development of his distinct and particular identity.The long personal story of Olaudah Equiano established the slave-narrative genre in literature.
In this section of the book, Carretta provides some insightful, well-argued, readable, and sometimes quite engrossing analyses of, for instance, the significance of the book’s prefatory material, Equiano’s claims to social status, and the engraving of Equiano that accompanies the book.
Carretta quite successfully and engagingly situates his analysis of these issues in relation to relevant social and literary materials outside of the book itself.
Judged from this perspective, Carretta has produced a clear, well-researched, and at times quite interesting biography.
The most interesting and successful chapters were the last three, chapters 12 through 14: “Making a Life,” “The Art of the Book,” and “A Self-Made Man.” These chapters are devoted to the years immediately preceding and following the publication of .
I wondered, for instance, about the amount of agency Carretta grants individuals in the production and/or representation of their subject positions. In making his case for Equiano as a “masterful rhetorician,” Carretta emphasizes Equiano’s conscious intent, his literary choices.
So, for instance, when he is analyzing Equiano’s writings on Africa, Carretta says, “Equiano chose from the various subject positions available to him the one or ones most appropriate for the particular audience or audiences he is addressing. The inconsistencies and questions that arise in Equiano’s account of Africa, Carretta suggests, are neither simple mistakes nor flaws in his memory but the result of careful and skillful choices by the author.
Carretta aims, it seems to me, for a more general audience.
I want to assess the work, then, in relation to what I take to be his implied audience.
Nonetheless, I would have expected the story itself to have been more compelling, and somehow Carretta made rather bland the story of a man who escaped slavery to travel around the world, participated himself in the slave trade, produced a book of extraordinary popularity, and participated in one of the major movements that helped change the face of the world in the abolition movement.
I also had certain questions about some key issues raised by Carretta’s narrative. Skilled rhetoricians know how to shift their positions, that is, how to emphasize different aspects of their identities to best influence and affect their readers or listeners” (256).