The Black Vampyre and the Natural World

Julia Dauer
University of Virginia

I taught The Black Vampyre in “American Natures to 1900,” an upper level seminar cross-listed in English and American Studies.  The class considers literary representations of American nature in relationship to settler colonialism, slavery, resistance, revolution, and the ideology of the nation.  We arrived at The Black Vampyre immediately after reading Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, so we had laid some groundwork thinking about the Haitian Revolution and the relationship between Haiti and the U.S.  We’d also been talking about (1) the role of comparisons to the nonhuman in producing or disrupting racial categories and (2) the question of who or what has power over plants, animals, landscapes, and natural forces.  The text worked well in this context.  It begins with a series of rapid comparisons between an enslaved child and various nonhuman and supernatural entities and involves a sustained inquiry into who or what –enslaved people, plantation owners, vampires, religious practice – controls water, fire, and soil. 

Because The Black Vampyre is so outrageous, I was unsure whether students would make it through to the end – much less remember plot details or specific representational strategies from the text.  When class began, only about half of my students could explain who Anthony Gibbons is.  We spent ten minutes or so at the beginning of class “doing plot.”  As a group, we pieced together a plot summery, asked and answered content questions, and got on the same page.  From there, we were able to have a fruitful conversation, focused primarily on the status of “the human” in the text and the question of who or what has power over the natural world.  

My students were surprised by the style of this text, which involves abrupt shifts in tone, sly plays with a popular audience, casual violence, and big, absurd moments like the explosion of Mr. Personne.  Especially compared to some of the texts we’d read at this point in our syllabus – John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, some of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecouer’s Letters from an American Farmer, Sansay – the fast action and uneven tone were a big adjustment.  This text stood out on my syllabus as evidence that popular writing in the nineteenth century could take all kinds of forms; I think it would teach very differently alongside a city mystery or gothic text of any sort, and this kind of pairing might make the tone of The Black Vampyre more navigable for students.  If and when I teach it again, I’ll do much more to frame the question of tone –how can we describe it, what might its impacts be – before we start reading. 

Several of my students came back to The Black Vampyre over the course of the semester, thinking and writing about how its representations of enslaved people and supernatural forces might work with or against colonial, abolitionist, or revolutionary agendas.  I think more students would have written essays about the text if we’d taken our conversation in class more slowly.  I taught this text all in one day, and it was too fast.  I plan to include The Black Vampyre when I teach this course again, and to teach it over 2 or 3 days.  I’d like to do a first day on the idea of a nonhuman child, really giving more space to the opening pages and the structures of family, enslavement, and refusal that begin the text.  A second day could focus on the text in relationship to the idea of an underground – I’m thinking of Lara Langer Cohen’s work on nineteenth-century undergrounds as I plan a discussion of the text’s graveyards and caves and the covert organizing of the African Prince.