Arts + Culture

UCLA professor unearths, resurrects long-lost antebellum novel

'Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself' garners praise for its 'rollicking satire'

Everywhere Christopher Looby goes these days, people want to know how the UCLA English professor found the 1836 American novel that he is being credited with rescuing from obscurity and republishing to rave reviews.
"I wish I had a colorful story about rooting around in the back room of an antiquarian bookseller or going into a rare-book library and having it fall off the shelf on me," Looby joked.
In fact, the specialist in 18th- and 19th-century American literature said he stumbled across a reference to "Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself," actually written by Robert Montgomery Bird, in what he calls "the usual scholarly way" — cuddling up with old book reviews by horror-meister Edgar Allan Poe.
Whatever his methods, literary critics are glad Looby employed them to resurrect the novel about a loafer who meets an untimely death and then discovers he has the power to reanimate and embody a succession of fresh corpses, including those of a dandy, a brewer, a Quaker, a money lender, a plantation owner and even a slave. Lee has only to tire of leading one life and — whoosh, up the nostrils of a new victim he flies.
Publishers Weekly said the novel, which returned to print in January for the first time in 172 years, "riffs winningly on the social and political culture of Bird's America." The Los Angeles Times described the book as "a time-capsule mosaic of Jackson-era America." The Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, praised its "pitch-perfect irony" and the Nation its "rollicking satire."
"During Sheppard's strange odyssey, all of the era's cherished, self-congratulatory maxims about the heroic individual, equality, the work ethic and invincible optimism are mocked mercilessly," the Nation said.
Not bad for the result of a chance encounter in 1984. That year, the classics publishing house Library of America reissued a collection of Poe's essays and reviews. Looby, who worked for the publisher in the mid-1980s while attending graduate school at Columbia University, remembers reading the book.
In keeping with the author's conceit that "Sheppard Lee" was the memoir of a transmigrated soul, the novel was originally published anonymously. But the Library of America collection identified Bird, a Philadelphia playwright and novelist, as the author.
"It stuck it in the back of my mind that I should look up that book someday," Looby recalled.
Still, Looby didn't get around to hunting for the novel until he moved to Philadelphia to join the University of Pennsylvania's faculty in 1996. In an independent research library nearby, he found a first edition of the book. In the university's library, which houses Bird's collected papers, Looby tracked down notes Bird made while concocting the novel's plot. Right away, he could tell he'd struck gold.
"'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."
After teaching "Sheppard Lee" for years using photocopies, Looby, in 2005, started lobbying The New York Review of Books classics series to reissue the novel.
"It's a very quirky series run by some very independent-minded people who just follow wherever their taste goes," Looby said. "'Sheppard Lee' seemed like their kind of thing."
In fact, "Sheppard Lee" is the earliest American title ever issued by the nine-year-old company, which tends to favor what Looby describes as "contemporary, postmodernist content," typically from Europe.
Indeed, the publishing house liked the book's sense of "dark comedy and inscrutability."
"It doesn't resolve any of the problems it raises," said Edwin Frank, editor of the NYRB classics series. "'Sheppard Lee' shows that discontent and unease and doubt were at work in the republic from the start, and just how troublesome the question of identity has historically been in America.
"Nowadays, had Lobby not drawn our attention to the book, it would have eventually appeared — in fact, it has — online for downloading, since it's in the public domain," Frank said. "That is rather different than proper publication, though, in that it doesn't help to draw attention to the book, and this is why rediscoveries are important — they actively draw attention to books that have been overlooked and make people see the past, and so the present, in a new light."
Even though Bird went to considerable lengths to avoid being revealed as the book's creator, Looby believes the author would enjoy the newfound fame.
"It must've been frustrating to write that novel and not have gotten any credit," Looby said.
Not that the novel was Bird's only accomplishment. Trained as a physician, Bird was best known as a dramatist, but he also wrote five other novels, painted, took photographs and supported himself for periods as an editor and journalist.
"Like the character of Sheppard Lee, he was kind of restless," Looby said.
Poe, however, might not be as thrilled with the attention. While his review of Bird's novel was largely favorable, he took issue with the way the author employed metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul, as the novel's main plot device. Poe had used the device in his 1832 short story "Metzengerstein."
"What Poe didn't quite buy about Bird's book is that when Sheppard Lee leaves the original body and goes to the next one and the next one and the next one, he actually changes in the process," Looby said. "Poe had this fixed idea that a spirit would go into another body and then be impinged upon by a new set of circumstances but remain unchanged."
While Looby takes such concerns with a grain of salt, the New York native, whose career has lead him across the nation, clearly revels in the general theme.
"What draws me to the book is it's about transformation," Looby said. "It's about starting as one person and ending up as someone else. That's a very American story line. Americans like to imagine that they can recreate themselves, and American literature really speaks to that desire."
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