The Dissenting Atlantic: The Transatlantic Journey of The Experience of Thomas Jones (1850)

The British Quaker abolitionist Wilson Armistead was on a short visit to the United States in the summer of 1850. On a journey on the recently desegregated Eastern Railroad, he shared a carriage with three strangers, all African American. One of them, Thomas Jones, recounted his remarkable history. Subsequently Armistead returned to England, and Jones fled to Canada after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. Armistead carried with him an un-named pamphlet Jones gave him, probably The Experience of Thomas Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years (1850), which he incorporated into a detailed account of his visit to the United States. This is the only version of Jones’ narrative published outside of the United States.
Multiple crossings coalesce in this fleeting encounter between strangers on a train: the passage from slavery to freedom; journeys across the Atlantic; and the complex transformation of African-American testimony into transatlantic print culture. This talk will use this unlikely encounter to illustrate larger issues of archive formation, and ask how we expand our conversations and research methodologies to recover under-researched figures involved in activism and social justice.

Bridget Bennett is Professor of American Literature and Culture at the School of English, University of Leeds, UK. She is currently completing a book titled No Place. Her most recent publications are “‘The Silence Surrounding the Hut’: Absence and Architecture in Wieland” (EAL 2018) which was awarded the 2019 Arthur Miller Prize, and two editions – of Walt Whitman’s poetry and also Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (both 2019) for Macmillan Press. Two essays will shortly appear: “Guerrilla Inscriptions: The 1851 Census and Transatlantic Abolition” for a special edition of Atlantic Studies: Global Currents and “The Many Homes of Marilynne Robinson” for a forthcoming collection, Marilynne Robinson: Critical Essays. This talk is part of a new project on what she calls the Dissenting Atlantic, and is based on an essay for a forthcoming collection, Crossings: Nineteenth-Century American Culture at a Juncture.