The mulatta text and the muted voice in "Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon": Revising the genre of the slave narrative

Rebecca Anne Ferguson, Marquette University


From the earliest critical discussion of the slave narrative genre in Rev. Ephraim Peabody's review essay of 1849 through the most recent scholarly analyses, unexamined assumptions have been advanced about the conventions, including structure, language, theme, and plot, which determine the inclusion of those slave narratives identified as generic texts. The 1988 publication of the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, under the editorship of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., includes several formerly unavailable slave narratives which constitute a new subgenre I am here defining for the first time as "mulatta texts." Mulatta texts expose, in their structuring between unequal voices, the negotiations necessary in slavery, an institution defined as the "paradox of formal distance and physical intimacy" by historian C. Vann Woodward. I analyze the textual control and moral agenda that the named author, northern abolitionist Rev. Hiram Mattison, maintained over one exemplary mulatta text in the Schomburg Library, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, but I also attend carefully to the complex and "muted voice" (to borrow John Sekora's term) of Louisa Picquet as she advances very different purposes. Determined to gain the financial contributions necessary to purchase the freedom of her mother and brother, Picquet cooperates with her interrogator even as she resists his familiar gaze and asserts her identity as a black woman in her own community. Although the last half of the text seems to erase Picquet, careful analyses of Louisa Picquet and other mulatta texts supports Toni Morrison's project, as limned in Playing in the Dark, to re-examine the entire canon of American literature for the presences of "Africanisms." Expanded understandings of the complexities of voice in mulatta narratives will allow us to respond to the voices of former slaves in other mulatta texts, narratives neither written nor controlled by the African Americans but nonetheless shaped by their powers of articulation and resistance.

Recommended Citation

Ferguson, Rebecca Anne, "The mulatta text and the muted voice in "Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon": Revising the genre of the slave narrative" (1995). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9601770.