Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor by Elizabeth Young
NYU Press, 2008
Available: Used hardcover, paperback, Kindle edition
With this being the bicentennial of the publication of Frankenstein, we can look forward to a year of interpretations of the text. Of course, you can read the novel as if it was produced in a blank space if you just want entertainment(this seems unlikely since the framing device is deadly dull, and almost anyone who picked it up and just read the first page would probably put it back down), or you can run with the romantic version of the summer party where the novel was first inspired, but Mary Shelley, even at 18, was an intelligent woman who listened well and was familiar with literature, philosophy, and the issues of the time.
The easiest way to look at Frankenstein is to consider her life circumstances as the gifted and passionate daughter of a prominent and provocative feminist who died giving birth to her, and a freethinking, progressive father who educated her to want more than she had. She had already been a mother herself, and watched her child die. The creation and destruction of life must have often been on her mind. In that way, Frankenstein is deeply personal to the author. But for the book and its characters to have survived so long and been recreated in so many ways and such a variety of media, it’s about much more than her own circumstances and emotions. She touched a nerve in our culture through her insights about her own life and times, and even if she never expected that her creation would continue to be relevant as time passed… well, it has been, and continues to be.
Frankenstein centers on reactions to physical and mental difference– monstrosity– and oppression and rejection of the “other”. It is a text that can be used both to justify oppression and to critique it. I was surprised to learn recently that the novel had been used in an argument against the abolition of slavery. This made me want to look further into it. In 1824, British Foreign Secretary George Canning did, in fact, refer to Frankenstein’s creature in a rebuttal to pro-abolition forces in Parliament, saying:
“We must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength … would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance.” (Wolfson)
I can’t imagine that Shelley was anything but appalled to have her work manipulated to support slavery. I learned from an online excerpt of Elizabeth Young’s Black Frankenstein that that support crossed the ocean to America (this seems like a cool book, if you like certain kinds of academic reading, which I do, but I haven’t had the opportunity to read the whole thing). After the Nat Turner revolt, American Thomas Dew quoted Canning’s reference to Frankenstein in a long pro-slavery essay. (Young, 19) In 1860, Frederick Douglass wrote that “slavery is the pet monster of the American people”, and it is still one we’re grappling with today. A century later, civil rights activist Dick Gregory observed that James Whale’s movie told the story of “a monster, created by a white man, turning on his creator.” (Young, 4) In fact, race played into the visuals of the movie, with the filming of the mob scene at the end created to evoke a lynching. (Wolfson) Frankenstein may have started out as a nineteenth century British Gothic novel, but it’s made a home for itself in American culture. With race at the forefront of our issues today, now is a great time to consider Frankenstein in a new light.
Wolfson, S. “What makes a monster?” New York Public Library. Retrieved from http://exhibitions.nypl.org/biblion/outsiders/outsiders/essay/essaywolfson
Young, E. (2008) “Introduction”. In Black Frankenstein: The making of an American metaphor. New York: NYU Press. Retrieved from https://nyupress.org/webchapters/9780814797150_Young_intro.pdf)