Popular and well-regarded in his time as a playwright and novelist, Bird (1806-1854) has slipped out of American literature, but this 1830s medley of satire mingled with moral philosophy, while a period artifact, riffs winningly on the social and political culture of Bird's America. Hoping to find buried treasure, the indolent Lee stumbles upon a "stone dead" neighbor. No sooner does he utter, "Oh, that I might be Squire Higginson!" than his wish is granted. Alas, Lee finds himself not only "with the gout and a scolding wife," but accused of murdering himself. Thus begin his peregrinations by metempsychosis, with a lesson to be had from each new body taken. As Dulmer Dawkins, Lee finds that the price of being "a favorite among the women" is debt. Arriving South a few jumps later, Lee becomes Nigger Tom, a body he soon exigently escapes, only to pick a body that suffers from "dyspepsy." From there, Lee explores the animal world (a dog), the inanimate (a coffee pot), and the dubiously historical (a French emperor). The various morals, as clear as they are, don't spoil the fun of following Lee as he tries to get back to the farm.
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is an antebellum novel like no other: a psychological picaresque in which the narrator survives the death of his body only to possess a succession of corpses as a spirit. Moving up and down the social and economic ladder in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Virginia, Sheppard Lee
embodies, among other identities, a gouty brewer, a miserly moneylender, and a slave. Equal parts comedy of manners, satire of sentimentality, and critique of antebellum political culture, Sheppard Lee
also offers a vivid portrait of early American life."
— Justine Murison, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
"An unjustly forgotten masterpiece, Sheppard Lee
inspired Poe's tales of metempsychosis, 'The Gold Bug,' and the juiciest parts of Melville's Israel Potter
. It also gave Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom his name. This novel of lost bodies and wandering spirits, with slavery's transformations of persons into things as background, introduces that 'other' American Renaissance—one of surreal disguises and hidden taints—which depended not on fiction but on history for its most gothic plots."
— Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University
, this novel is an original in American Belles Lettres at least; and these deviations, however indecisive, from the more beaten paths of imitation, look well for our future literary prospects...We must regard Sheppard Lee
, upon the whole, as a very clever…jeu d’esprit.
” —Edgar Allen Poe, Southern Literary Messenger
“There is a fund of amusement in it, displaying an intimate acquaintance with the lights and shades of human character.” —The New Yorker
“Of all the native productions of the season, commend us to Sheppard Lee…
a delicious bundle of all sorts of clever intellectual wares.” —New York Monthly Magazine
“This is one of the most original and ingenious works of fiction that has been produced in the United States. As a mere novel, it is exceedingly entertaining; as a satire, with much of broad caricature, it is still generally pointed and just; as a ‘morality,’ it is excellent…the author...is a bold and vigorous writer; and we acknowledge that it is long, very long, since we read an American novel that gave us half the pleasure we have derived from the perusal of Sheppard Lee
…a work completely sui generis.
” —The American Monthly Magazine
“One of the most amusing books that has been published for a long time, and one for which we predict an extensive demand…The book will well repay one for its perusal.” —Family Magazine
“The book abounds with whim and burlesque, pointed but playful satire, and felicitous sketches of society.” —Home Journal
“Of the many books of the present season, Sheppard Lee
is most to our liking.” —The Ladies’ Companion