‘In company with the strange ship’: Oceanic encounters between the neoslave narrative and neo-Victorianism.

Lewi Mondal is a doctoral researcher and graduate tutor in English at Teesside University. His thesis is entitled Intimate Encounters:  Between Neoslave Narrative and Neo-Global Neo-Victorianism. His thesis asks whether a ‘global’ neo-Victorianism can be considered as located at a critical interstice between contemporary representations of the nineteenth-century and twentieth- and twenty-first-century slave narratives. With both of these literary bodies imaginatively returning to the nineteenth century – and with similar objectives of historical destabilisation – they share a series of affinities and interlacements. Lewi proposes a merging of post/neo-slave texts and interpretive modes associated with neo-Victorian texts marks a moment that symbolises a theoretical and textual intimacy. Lewi is also, currently, an assistant editor of Neo-Victorian Studies journal. 

Vanessa Dickerson, in ‘Dark Victorians’ endeavours to assemble the ‘pieces and fragments to present a sustained study of the relations between African Americans and Victorian Britons and of how African Americans and British Victorians approached, engaged, and thought about one another.’[1] She situates transatlantic ‘discursive and cultural cadences, kinships, and correspondences’ which destabilises received notions of the ‘Victorian’. Similarly, In Reaping Something New, Daniel Hack traces the use of Victorian literary forms by African American writers in order to forge an original, lasting and distinctly African American literary tradition. In doing so, these black writers engage in a series of political transformations – from the leveraging of nineteenth-century British literature in order to cultivate racial solidarity, to the establishment of distinctive voice.[2] In this way, African-American usages of Victorian texts present a clear affinity between the American continent and the British Victorian experience.

Whilst the Victorians and African Americans enjoyed such encounter and kinship according to Daniel Hack and Vanessa Dickerson, it is sensible to ask how their prevailing twentieth- and twenty-first-century progenies correspond to one another. Emerging from this line of thinking is the relationship between nineteenth-century American novelists and the uses of them by authors of what have been termed neo- and post-slave narratives. This interlacement of affinity and encounter is what constitutes a justification for discussing neo-slave texts alongside neo-Victorianism. Both of these distinct genres bear a relationship to the nineteenth century and, in multivalent ways, demonstrate afterlives of the century.

Antonija Primorac and Monika Pietrzak-Franger’s 2015 special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies sought to challenge our assumptions of the neo-‘Victorian’ as privileging texts whose roots are British[3]. This echoes Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn’s criticism that neo-Victorianism risks reinforcing and reifying patterns of imperialist discourse if it focusses on Britain as metonym for Victorian[4]. Elizabeth Ho, similarly, is acutely aware of this equation suggesting we pay closer attention to postcolonial perspectives particularly in the ‘wake of the British Empire’s dissolution.’[5] Primorac and Pietrzak-Franger ask what constitutes and comprises ‘global’ neo-Victorianism. It is to this query I have sought to respond by positioning African Americans as participants of the global Victorian, and latterly, neo-Victorian studies – albeit at a distance. It should of course be noted that prima facie, Neo-slave writing emerged under similar conditions of late-sixties ‘postmodernity’ to the ‘first’ neo-Victorian texts. This approach resonates with Andrea Kirchknopf’s invitation for ‘detailed [analyses] of the parallels between neo-Victorian and other movements with the same prefix’.[6]

‘These ancient twins are built into the mind like the steam-piece of a merchantman’

Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) surfaces as an example of a textual intimate encounter from this transatlantic miscellany of influences. The novel is an example of Black literary meditation on ‘locating’ racial self and is notably a twentieth-century echo of the American Victorian. Through a series of Melvillean turns and transatlantic voyage, Middle Passage is a belated, African American ‘crossing’, to borrow again from Vanessa Dickerson[7]. The novel contains a series of metaphoric ‘crossings’ that serve to reveal the written-ness of the narrative – again recalibrating the received notions of traditional slave narratives and the anxiety of influence they were produced under. Johnson’s novel is a narrative about a freed slave’s re-entry onto a slaver in New Orleans, in order to retrieve human cargo. It represents a series of deliberations Rutherford Calhoun, the novel’s protagonist, goes through in the wake of his flight from America back towards the direction of his ancestral homeland. The difficulty of an African American re-treading this journey should be lost on nobody. It is the text’s further intricacies that further locate it within the definition of encounter previously sketched.

Amitav Ghosh’s novel, Sea of Poppies, is a novel employed by neo-Victorian scholars to discuss placelessness, globalism and postcoloniality – due, in most part, to its ship, the Ibis, and the globe-crossing journey it has embarked upon. Middle Passage is another novel about seafaring – one that similarly ‘takes place’ across locales and is oriented globally. It is situated on a diachronic/synchronic fault line[8] by virtue of it as a contemporary meditation on postcoloniality and race within a nineteenth-century narrative arrangement. Indeed, to some extent the novel is about all kinds of ‘middle-ness’ as Rutherford Calhoun ‘is confined spatially and temporally […] in –between the ship’s crew and the Allmuseri, in-between factions of the ship’s crew, and in-between generations of African Americans.’[9] This element of indeterminacy is the defining feature of how I see neo-slave and neo-Victorian texts interlacing. Whilst Middle Passage, even in name, approaches a transformational journey tied intimately to African American experiences, the ghost of Melville – an unmistakable nineteenth-century author – is very evident. Yet it is not merely the spectral apparition of a major author of the nineteenth-century narrative at-sea that is significant. A further, more active and reflexive use of nineteenth-century features displays a more specific neo-Victorian tendency – as is the use of certain writers styles and plotlines (in the case of Will Self’s Dorian, for example). The additional element here is that, following Henry Louis Gate’s strategy of signifyin’, Middle Passage also demonstrates a distinct element of black intertextuality. Johnson is also extending Melville’s literary significance through an important African American novel in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. At the same time Johnson’s novel demonstrates Mellville-esque seafaring existential conundrums, Invisible Man itself employs Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’ in its epigraph. This network of influence, deriving as it does from Melville, is captured by John Callahan in the preface to Invisible Man in which he observes ‘from the beginning he [Ellison] looked to the nineteenth-century novel.’[10] This is yet more intricately examined in Bradley Ray King’s article ‘Ralph Ellison’s Melville Masks’ (which itself employs a great deal of Callahan’s scholarship on Ellison). King highlights Ellison’s proclivity to reference, both explicitly and indirectly Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno’. It is, in particular, the allusion in the epigraph to ‘casting shadows’ and how this explains what ‘Babo’s haunting power’ is and the multiple concealments that take place in the novella.[11] Concealment and subsequent revelation is present in Middle Passage. Given Johnson’s admiration of Ellison, and the shades of Melvillean of deceit and seafaring voyages of discovery there is reason to read Middle Passage as redolent of ‘Benito Cereno’. This provides a frame in which to read contemporary novels of slavery against a nineteenth-century narrative where a slave insurrection is the centre of doubt and confusion in the narrative.


The multiple permutations of ‘cross’ is significant when considering Middle Passage and its sophisticated intertextual nature. To take ‘double-crossing’ as a paradigm for reading these two texts together is to understand how Middle Passage represents such a representational encounter between neo-slave narrative and neo-Victorianism. Both ‘Benito Cereno’ and Middle Passage engage in forms of deception, in plot and in narrative obscurity. These emerge when characters seek entry into a variety of spaces they shouldn’t be. Oftentimes these spaces are metonymic for secrecy and the personal themselves, in the case of the hold in ‘Benito Cereno’ and Captain Falcon’s below-deck quarters in Middle Passage. Melville’s narrator Delano observes that ‘the ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave.’[12] We know that the ship holds secrets by the close of the novella, and the foreshadowing of costumes and gestures points towards the performance and deception of Babo. Refiguring the positionality of the concealment, the ship itself is said to emerge from the deep. Middle Passage has its own metaphoric configuration of the ship and its symbolic significance. Rutherford Calhoun, the narrator, describes the ship as ‘conscious and disapprovingly aware of [his] presence’[13] and later, as he lays down, in a funereal manner, the ship is said to sink him ‘like a fish, or a stone, farther down through the leagues of darkness’.[14] The depths the ship materialises from calls to mind one of the most enduring articulations of the oceanic and the peculiar institution in Derek Walcott’s ‘the sea is history’. In this context the ship quite literally has been immersed, and subsequently emerges from, the marine burial place of lives lost to chattel slavery. Located in the sea as deceiving, concealing apparatus is a metonym for textual affinities that are uncovered when treating the sea and the ship – in collaboration almost – as chief participants of disguise. This isn’t to divert the critical gaze from the ills of slavery, but to reveal a geography where east meets west, where the Atlantic becomes significant as a site for the ‘interdependence between things’.[15] A neo-Victorian text such as Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Johnson’s Middle Passage, share images of the sea that are characterised by what Leslie Eckel terms an ‘emptiness and perpetual transformation that the sea presents’.[16] Such a transformation is referred to by Elizabeth Ho when she interprets the gap between The Sincerity’s double hull. Ho, in fact, presents this as the place in which to produce questions about imperial history and generate a ‘global, deterritorialized’ neo-Victorianism.[17] Eckel follows by terming the oceanic as ‘destructive and generative’.[18] The destructive nature of the sea gives birth to the kind of ship we see in Middle Passage. This kind of vessel, to an extent, ruptures the familiar narratives of the ship merely as an instrument for transference. The ship in this sense becomes the ‘mobile element that stood for the shifting spaces in between the fixed places they connected.’[19] The ostensibly disparate and distinct categories of neo-Victorianism and neo-slave narrative, then, have affinities that reveal themselves when geographical fixed points give way to the fluidity, destructive and generative potential of the sea and its traversers. Imperial attitudes, separated by sea and century, become interrelated when considering those very two separators – oceanic fluidity and temporal belatedness.  


Callahan, John. ‘Introduction’. In Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man (London: Penguin/Random House, 2001).

Dickerson, Vanessa. Dark Victorians. (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

Eckel, Leslie Elizabeth. ‘Oceanic mirrors: Atlantic literature and the global chaosmos’, in Atlantic Studies. 11.1. (2014).

Fagel, Brian. ‘Passages from the Middle: Coloniality and Postcoloniality in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage’. In African American Review. 30.4. (1996).

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. (London/New York: Verso, 1993).

Hack, Daniel. Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature. (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2017).

Heilmann, Ann and Llewellyn, Mark. ’The Victorians now: global reflections on neo‐Victorianism. In Critical Quarterly. 55.1. (2013).

Ho, Elizabeth. Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire. (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).

King, Bradley Ray. ‘Ralph Ellison’s Melville Masks’. In REAL. 30. (2014).

Kirchknopf, Andrea. ‘(Re)workings of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Definitions, Terminology, Contexts’. In Neo-Victorian Studies. 1.1. (2008).

Kucich, John, ‘The Unfinished Historicist Project: In Praise of Suspicion’. In Victoriographies. 1.1. (2011).

Melville, Herman. ‘Benito Cereno’ [1855]. In Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016).

Primorac, Antonija and Pietrzak-Franger, Monika. ‘Introduction: What is Global Neo-Victorianism?’. In Neo-Victorian Studies. 8.1. (2015).

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. (London: Vintage, 1993).

[1] Vanessa Dickerson, Dark Victorians (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), p. 10

[2] Daniel Hack, Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature, (Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 7

[3] A Primorac, M Pietrzak-Franger, ‘Introduction: What is Global Neo-Victorianism?’ in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, 8.1 (2015)

[4] Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, ’The Victorians now: global reflections on neo‐Victorianism’ in Critical Quarterly, 55.1, 2013.

[5] Elizabeth Ho, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

[6] Andrea Kirchknopf, ‘(Re)workings of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Definitions, Terminology, Contexts’, in Neo-Victorian Studies, 1.1 (2008)

[7] Vanessa Dickerson, ‘The operative word here is “cross” in all its variations as journey (to go across), as encounter (to come across), as change (to crossover), as violence and extermination (to cross out), even as writing, which, in the words of one French poet and essayist, requires an exquisite journey of pencil and hand across the page’, p. 5

[8] John Kucich describes a fault line in neo-Victorian scholarship, emerging from historicist approaches in the 1980s. He describes the hybrid nature of synchronic historicism and diachronic historicism. Synchronic seeks to ‘thicken’ the understanding of a given period by its social and literary intersections whilst diachronic exposes the connections between past and present. ‘The Unfinished Historicist Project: In Praise of Suspicion’, in Victoriographies, 1.1 (2011) pp. 59-78.

[9] Brian Fagel, ‘Passages from the Middle: Coloniality and Postcoloniality in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage,’ in African American Review, 30.4, (1996).

[10] John Callahan, ‘Introduction’, in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, (London: Penguin/Random House, 2001).

[11] Bradley Ray King, ‘Ralph Ellison’s Melville Masks,’ in REAL, 30, (2014), p. 130.

[12] Herman Melville, ‘Benito Cereno’ [1855], in Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 59.

[13] Charles Johnson, Middle Passage, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), p. 21.

[14] Charles Johnson, p. 21.

[15] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1993), p. 72.

[16] Leslie Eckel, ‘Oceanic mirrors: Atlantic literature and the global chaosmos,’ in Atlantic Studies, 11.1, (2014), p. 130.

[17] Elizabeth Ho, p. 189.

[18] Leslie Eckel, p. 140.

[19] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, (London/New York: Verso, 1993), p. 16.