Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself
Robert Montgomery Bird
New York Review of Books, 425 pg
Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is a forgotten American classic from the early part of the nation’s history, one that revels in poking fun at the contradictory tendencies in the young democracy. Bird’s vision of its inhabitants isn’t so much caustic, but a distaste for the pretentious idlers who only want to be aristocrats. His writing, though, is not dull and full of scolding, rather in the tradition of satire he makes fun of his characters, who, despite their striving, never quite achieve what they long for. His take on antebellum society (with one exception) is filled with humorous touches that both make fun of and describe the country.
Shepard Lee is the lay about heir to a large farm in New Jersey whose only ambition in life is to do nothing because nothing interests him. Since nothing interests him he knows nothing about money and is slowly swindled out of his land, trusting in people too much mostly because it is the easiest thing to do. Finding that living well and not working only leads to poverty he becomes desperate as his income (his land holdings) dwindles and he begins to dream of finding pirate’s treasure. He descends into superstition as his black servant explains how if one dreams about Captain Kid’s treasure three times in a row, one can find the treasure at midnight. Complaining all along about the indignity of digging for the treasure at the middle of the night, he sets out to find the treasure, and, of course, only experiences mishap after mishap. He is a useless shovel man and only manages to injure himself in the process, something Bird draws quite comically.
It is at this moment he accidentally kills himself and the book takes its strange and fantastical shape. Looking at his dead body Lee wonders what to do next when he sees a dead hunter near by. He is a rich man and Shepard Lee wishes he could be like that man and as he does so he suddenly finds his spirit sucked into the man’s body, reanimating it and partially taking over his life.
The ability to go from dead body to dead body is the defining feature of the book and animates the satire. Bird constructs the reanimation so that when Shepard Lee enters the body of the dead person he only partially controls it, the rest comes from the formerly dead person, who magically returns to life and resumes his life as before. Letting the dead person live his life lets Shepard Lee both comment on the strangeness of the life and see how that person lived his life. While Bird doesn’t stick to the device completely and Lee seems to be in control at times, the device is clever and lends itself well to the satire.
Once Lee takes over the body of the hunter he finds he is a rich man, which thrills him to no end. Quickly he realizes, though, that being rich isn’t everything. The man has painful gout and has a combative wife. Lee spends little time in the man’s body, which is fortunate, because the satire in this section of the book isn’t particularly interesting, especially the relationship with the wife. How many henpeck husband jokes can one take, really? However, it does introduce us to Sheppard Lee’s first of many disappointments as he learns that lives are seldom as they appear.
He next reanimates a young dandy and Lee is excited to live the life of a young, handsome man. If Lee wasn’t so rash with his choices, though, he might have thought twice before entering the body of someone who has just commuted suicide. But Lee doesn’t think about those things and when he returns home he finds himself surrounded by creditors. He tries to convince them he is going to get married soon and will be able to pay them all off, and for the remainder of the dandy section his only goal is to get married to a wealthy woman. The dandy is one of the better pieces of the book and in it you see the conflicting impulses of the young country. On the one hand you have the dandy, a man who is too good to work and yet has no money and spends all his time trying to figure out ways to marry into wealth. It is quite reminiscent of Vanity Fair, especially the chapter How to Live on Nothing a Year. On the other hand the dandy’s uncle is a country bumpkin and a rich man, but who at the first opportunity to enter society is willing to spend his fortune on clothing, houses, and carriages all because that is what one has to do. Bird takes great pleasure in showing all these people, the dandy with his hustler like mentality, and the new rich with their over whelming desire to buy respectability, as either selfish or gullible, the dark side of the wide open society of the United States.
In another funny section, Bird gives us the Quaker philanthropist, which he uses in the broader term of do-gooder. The philanthropist is a man who always believes there is good in man. The bad are just victims of society and need a second chance. The philanthropist, of course, takes it on himself to provide these second chances to everyone. His only interest in life is in helping people and he drives great pleasure from this, something the Sheppard Lee, after a series of miserable hosts, takes delight in. However, the philanthropist is not much of a realist and everyone he tries to help either turns against him or cheats him. In one chapter he summarizes his failures:
I. Beaten by a drunkard whom I had taken out of prison, and bailed to keep the peace.
II. Mulcted out of $100 surety-money, because my gentleman broke the peace by beating me.
V. Rolled in the mud by the boys of my own charity-school, who I had exhorted not to daub the passers-by.
XI. Whitewashed and libeled on my own back by the stone-cutters, for buying wrought marble out of the prison.
The philanthropist always wants to help, but his help is either an unwanted intrusion in other people’s affairs, or is rejected by ungrateful people who want something better than the paltry sums he hands out. Shepard Lee realizes that it doesn’t pay to help anyone and the satisfaction the philanthropist gets when he helps people is just a selfish desire to feel good. It is a funny and probably the best section of the book. Bird’s take on selfish hucksterism of city life leaves few people unscathed.
The philanthropist is then captured by fugitive slave catchers and taken to Virginia. He is a wanted man because he has helped too many slaves escape. Just as he is about to be lynched by a mob in Virginia Lee sees a slave fall from a tree and die. At that moment he reanimates the slave’s body. The depiction of slavery Bird gives is something along the lines of my old Virginia home, where the master is a happy and generous man, and the salves are well fed and contented. Trouble only comes when the slaves find an abolitionist pamphlet in some goods they are unloading and begin to learn they are captives. Worse, Lee reads what the paper says and makes them even more dissatisfied. The salves then plan a revolt and in the process kill members of the master’s family.
The slavery potion is the worst part of the book and obviously the most dated section. Bird is almost an apologist for slavery here, essentially saying that the slaves are happy and contented as long as they don’t know anything about their servitude. In certain contexts the notion that knowledge is disturbing might be interesting, but here it elevates slavery to some exalted type of paternalism, a better form of philanthropy that is best left as it is. Throughout the book Bird doesn’t hesitate to show people as greedy, selfish, misguided, and yet the only people who are not that way are the masters and the slaves. At best it is a weakness of the story, but I think it reflects a way of thinking that is racist. The plantation was not the garden of Eden and to paint is as one even in satire is ugly. Had the satire actually shown the dark side of slavery, in much the same way that he takes on stock trading, for example, then the slavery section might be interesting. As it is, it is a legacy from a darker time in the young United States.
Sheppard Lee Written by Himself is a book that takes great pleasure in making fun Americans as they strive to remake themselves and often find they are making hypocritical and self defeating decisions. For those who wish to make money or enter high society, Bird places even more scorn, holding, instead, the life of the gentleman farmer, as Sheppard Lee eventually learns, in high esteem. It is a conservative position, a throw back to Jeffersonian in the age of Jackson. Part of the fun of the book is to see just how rambunctious the schemes to get rich are, and it presents an America, at this distance, that is rough and wild and even though some people strive to make themselves respectable, it is impossible to escape that striving character. It obviously has problems when questions of race and slavery come up, but otherwise it is a highly readable and funny satire about the early United States.