Mr. Reed writes in an utterly idiosyncratic pastiche of styles and genres — part confession, part jeremiad, part lamentation, part picaresque novel (reminiscent, at times, of Dickens and Defoe) ... Though Mr. Reed’s book suggests he found some solace in the act of writing, it is also a chilling reminder to the reader of the roots of an American prison system that has grown no more humane and grown so exponentially that it now houses a startling 2.2 million people.
There are many reasons this book is remarkable, not least that while Reed is brutalized regularly, he remains triumphantly defiant. Though the only formal education he received was while in the House of Refuge, he writes with a novelist's sense of nuance and adventure—or misadventure. The memoir anticipates that the American penitentiary system would become a kind of successor to slavery's shackles.
Reed worked on Haunted Convict intermittently during his long years of confinement, as well as during brief interludes of freedom. Never entirely finished or published—in fact, unknown in its day—it provides a perfect example of problematic encounters with black captivity: How to be enlightened without treating as entertainment the consumption of black suffering? A historical artifact, the book holds both archive and mirror for the present antagonisms about racism, policing, and mass incarceration, contributing to the ongoing exploration and debates concerning American democracy and racial identity built upon black captivity.
Ambiguity is a trickier business in the word-for-word process of turning a manuscript like Reed’s into a readable book, without effectively silencing him by condescending to polish it into something it never was. But by simultaneously publishing the manuscript on the Yale University website, this exemplary edition recovers history without permanently trapping it in one interpretation. I hope it will prompt further discovery of Reed’s life story.
Reed’s account is written in the melodramatic style common to the day; the pages throb with many references to 'infernal wretches' and 'damned infernal villain[s],' making the memoir an entertaining read ... In this age of mass incarceration, Reed’s story is a timely one. What good fortune for us that the record of his life as a prisoner was preserved and found.
Reed’s book is a wild, propulsive romp, filled with section titles such as, 'The author is put in an iron yoke,' and 'The convict’s jewelry consist of iron or brass.' A charismatic and idiosyncratic voice in perpetual rebellion, obsessed with hellfire and the seductive and self-sabotaging evils of 'novels' and 'masturbation,' Reed displays virtuosic gifts for narrative that, a century and a half later, earn and hold the reader’s ear. This remains true regardless of the veracity or sociological value of the tales he has so improbably recorded.