"A REMARKABLE SPIRITUAL ADVENTURE, INVOLVING VIOLENT RESISTANCE TO SLAVERY, DIVINE VISITATIONS, AND AN UNFORGETTABLE SEA VOYAGE": VERY RARE FIRST EDITION OF LIFE OF JOHN THOMPSON: A FUGITIVE SLAVE, 1856, ENTIRELY AUTHORED BY HIM AND SELF-PUBLISHED, IN ORIGINAL CLOTH
THOMPSON, John. Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave; Containing his History of 25 Years in Bondage, and his Providential Escape. Written by Himself. Worcester: Published by John Thompson, 1856. Small octavo (5 by 7-1/4 inches), original gilt- and blind-stamped brown cloth. $4500.
First edition and only printing of Thompson's self-published autobiography, a dramatic account of his life under slavery and his years aboard a whaling ship, revealing the influence of Frederick Douglass' Heroic Slave and Melville's Moby Dick, with Thompson, who like Ismael, goes "to sea seeking freedom… [and] makes whaling an allegory of the state of the soul, much as Ishmael does," not published again for over a hundred years, very elusive in original gilt-stamped cloth.
Born enslaved in Maryland in 1812, Thompson finally escaped and found his way to New Bedford. There, although he had never been to sea, he shipped out on whaling vessel to evade capture by slave traders. After his years at sea, Thompson returned home and "sometime before 1855 he and his family relocated to Worcester, the move perhaps associated with preparation and publication of his narrative" (McCarthy & Doughton, From Bondage to Belonging, 40). In his preface, Thompson "explains that he read other slave narratives before writing his own, and he clearly modeled his first few chapters upon them. However, he was one of a small but significant number of slaves who professed to have had direct experience of God, and that experience evidently reshaped his narrative… His story—which he wrote and printed himself without the benefit of any editor or adviser—became a remarkable spiritual adventure, involving violent resistance to slavery, divine visitations, and an unforgettable sea voyage" (Yuval Taylor, I Was Born a Slave, 414). "More than most authors, Thompson celebrates the slave who resists, who challenges the master's claim of absolute authority" and focuses on "his "growth of faith" (McCarthy & Doughton, 38-39).
"Thompson gained literacy early…to describe his two-year whaling voyage, he seems to have drawn on such sea tales as Frederick Douglass' novel, Heroic Slave , or Melville's Benito Cereno . Scholars also note, "based on compelling evidence internal to his story, he probably read Melville's Moby Dick (1851) and responds to it in his narrative. The only other known African American who read and responded to Melville's brilliant exploration of race and freedom on a multiracial whaling ship was the black intellectual and physician James McCune Smith… Like Ishmael, who asks, 'Who ain't a slave?' after going to sea seeking freedom, Thompson too acknowledges his subordinate status on a whaling ship, which becomes a symbol of America… And he makes whaling an allegory of the state of the soul, much as Ishmael does" (McCarthy & Doughton, 39-40. xvi-xvii). As Thompson's book progresses, "it moves, in a pilgrim's progress, from the worldly to the divine. The narrative was well received when published… but it only went through one edition and was not reprinted for over a century" (Yuval Taylor, 414). "Self-published in Worcester in 1856, the book had a very limited circulation… Thompson had his narrative printed at one of the local newspaper offices… [by] Charles Hamilton, printer of the Worcester Palladium. Thompson must have come across one of the advertisements that Hamilton placed in the Palladium in early 1856 and paid for the printing himself" (Roy, in Against a Sharp White Background, 264-65). Four years after publication, Thompson died in Worcester in October 1860. As issued without dust jacket. Blockson 9660. Brigano 456. Work, 313.
Interior fresh with only lightest foxing, trace of edge-wear, faint soiling to bright gilt cloth, About-fine.