‘Spectacular’ memoir by African American brings readers inside 19th-century prison

The earliest-known prison memoir penned by an African American was published by Random House on Jan. 26, over 150 years after it was originally written.

“The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict,” written by Austin Reed, describes his experiences while serving time in New York State prison from the 1830s through the 1850s, and paints a portrait of what life was like for Reed both inside and outside of the penitentiary.

The manuscript, which was acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2009, was edited by Caleb Smith, professor of English and American Studies, and includes a foreword by David W. Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of History and professor of African American studies and of American studies, and Robert Stepto, professor of English, African American studies, and American studies.

YaleNews recently spoke with Smith about the process of editing Reed’s memoir, how the manuscript was deemed to be authentic, and the “literary power” of Reed’s writing.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

How did you become involved with Austin Reed’s memoir?

When Reed’s manuscript surfaced in 2009, it immediately caught the eye of the curators at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It appeared to be a spectacular discovery — an unpublished book by a previously unknown African American writer, telling about his experience as a prisoner in New York State in a time before Emancipation. But very little was known about the memoir or its author, who wrote under the name “Rob Reed.” There were questions about the manuscript’s origins and authenticity. One of the curators, Louise Bernard, reached out to David Blight, Robert Stepto, and me to ask what we thought about the text and its possible value to researchers. I sat down in the Beinecke reading room with the manuscript, and I just got enchanted. I had been reading and writing about American prison literature for a decade or so, but I had never seen anything quite like this. Learning about “The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict” became the big research project in my life for the next several years.

How was “The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict” authenticated?

When I started working on Reed’s manuscript in 2009, I knew a lot about prison history and prison literature, but authenticating the text involved contributions from many different researchers with many different kinds of expertise. A New York-based archivist and researcher, Christine McKay, found Austin Reed’s file in the archives of the House of Refuge. It included a brief account of Reed’s first crime, an arson against his master’s property committed when Reed was a 10-year-old indentured servant, as well as two letters to the superintendent that Reed wrote very late in his life, in 1895. The file gave us Reed’s first name, and it led us to many other prison records, newspaper accounts, and legal documents. From those, we pieced together his identity and that of his family. Marie-France Lemay, a Yale conservationist, tested the paper and the ink to verify a date in the mid-19th century. A Beinecke paleographer, Diane Ducharme, studied the handwriting of the manuscript and the House of Refuge letters. I worked with a few research assistants to track down several of the other people Reed mentions. All of these different kinds of research seemed to confirm that Reed had written the book in the years leading up to 1858, when he concluded his story.

What do Austin Reed’s writings tell us about what life was like for him inside and outside of prison in the 19th century?

Reed was born into a free black family in Rochester. His father was a barber and a homeowner, and his mother was literate. The Reeds were part of a small circle of middle-class people of color in Rochester, involved in the founding of the city’s first black church. But his father died when Reed was very young, and the family fell on hard times. From that point forward, Reed’s life was determined by poverty and racial segregation. Although he spent his life in a free state, he was an indentured servant before he was 10, and he came of age in the House of Refuge, the first juvenile reformatory in the United States. For most of three decades he was caught in a cycle of incarceration and recidivism. But he also saw how modern systems of policing and imprisonment created networks of solidarity among the poor — some of his most beautiful stories are about how the boys in the House of Refuge form little improvised families to sustain and protect each other.

Who was the intended audience for Reed’s memoir?

Reed is certainly writing for the public; his book is a plotted narrative, not a journal or a diary. Along the way, he experiments with several different genres, including the outlaw Romance, the exposé, the confession, and the temperance sermon. In some places, he seems to be addressing the ministers and lawyers who were interested in the cause of prison reform. Elsewhere, he writes a more sensational kind of protest literature, with a fury that would have been too much for those genteel readers to handle. His memoir includes some very sophisticated passages reflecting on how he has been called on to perform for white audiences, but his hometown of Rochester was also a center of black writing and publishing, thanks to the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, so he may have imagined an African American audience, too. 

What was the process of editing the book like?

Delicate. I wanted the book to be an event in the present, to provoke readers to think about the deep histories of race and incarceration that lie beneath our own conditions, but I knew that there was a long, sometimes dubious tradition of white editors manipulating the writings of fugitives and captives to serve their own purposes. I’ve published a few pieces on just that topic. When it came to Reed’s prose, the problem was to respect both the text he had composed by hand and his implicit intention to publish his text, which would of course have involved being edited, at least for spelling and punctuation. I tried to take a minimally invasive approach, simply regularizing the spelling and inserting punctuation, and I included a substantial appendix listing all of the changes, to render my interventions as transparent as possible. Since the Beinecke Library has made digital page scans of Reed’s entire manuscript freely available through its website, students and researchers have the opportunity to see the text just as Reed wrote it, and to make their own judgments about how it should or should not have been changed.

In your own work, what led you to explore the topic of imprisonment?

I am a critic and a scholar of American literature, so I am concerned with a paradox. For me, being interested in America means being interested in the antinomy between the dream of freedom and the nightmares of enslavement, captivity, exclusion, and dispossession. Over the past 50 years, the prison has expanded to become a crucial institution in the United States, one that defines the character of our government and our social conditions. The prison holds the place in our era that the plantation held in Austin Reed’s time: It is the instrument and the symbol of unfreedom. I want to understand where this institution comes from. Why, around the turn of the 19th century, did it suddenly seem like a good idea to lock thousands of women and men away, often in solitary cells? What were the ideas about the mind or the soul that could lend themselves to such a weird, violent endeavor? What did imprisonment have to do with enslavement and imperial expansion? I want to see what prisons have done to our world, and I want to think, in the company of other writers and scholars, about what a world without prisons might look like.

How does your previous writing in the book “The Prison and the American Imagination” relate to this current project?

I wish I would have known about Austin Reed while I was working on “The Prison and the American Imagination.” In that book, I tried to weave together two strands of thinking about prisons. First, the reformers who established the first institutions for long-term penal confinement, around the turn of the 19th century, said that they wanted to transform the convict into a useful and productive citizen. They were going to do away with hanging and public humiliation, which wounded and marked offenders’ bodies; they were going to reclaim lost souls. Their idea of justice included rehabilitation, maybe even redemption. Second, at the same time, the prison was always known as a zone of banishment, hidden torture, and civil death, and the incarcerated were depicted as slaves of the state, as ungovernable monsters, the living dead. How could the prison be both of these things, a kind of asylum for rehabilitation and a dungeon for exclusion and retributive violence? I came to see how prison authorities and incarcerated writers alike had imagined imprisonment by way of a secular resurrection narrative — inmates would be buried alive so that they could be born again. Even the promise of redemption depended on the premise of dehumanization and mortification.

I think Reed’s book is the most fascinating piece of prison literature from the formative era of the modern prison, both for its historical interest and for its literary power. Reed is explicit about the connections between slavery in the South and servitude and imprisonment in the free North. He sees the aspects of the industrial prison in 1858 that will allow it to become a weapon of racial domination after the Civil War. And he also understands, intimately, the promises and limits of rehabilitation. He makes a provisional kind of peace with the reformers who cultivate his education and console him in his cell. But his vision can become furious, apocalyptic. He doesn’t just want to improve the state prison. He wants to burn it down. 

How have Austin Reed’s memoir and other items in Yale’s collections influenced your teaching?

I bring my students to the Beinecke Library whenever I can. The curators are some of the best educators on campus, and the collections are full of treasures. I’ve taught using some of the iconic holdings, including the several copies of the first edition of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” but I have also invited my students to do their own detective work on manuscripts and printed documents about which very little is known. This semester I am teaching Austin Reed in my seminar “Prison Studies and Prison Literature,” so we will have a chance to compare my Random House edition to the handwritten text.

What was the most startling or surprising thing that you encountered while editing this manuscript?

I had a strange, surprising feeling: The more I learned about the book Reed wrote, the more he seemed to disappear behind it.