Sheppard Lee: A study in Contradiction [Review]

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We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …[1] 

Robert Montgomery Bird was 30 years old when Sheppard Lee was published. He’d had plenty of time to scrutinize the human condition, its psychology, and its reaction to and formulation of political structures. He observed the American men and women of his time, the deep social rifts between them, rampant envy and resentment resulting from their differences. He saw the social division as a natural reaction to the American structure, an inherent flaw in the ideals of the Constitutionalists. What resulted, according to Bird, was a society of longing, a desire to strip away one’s identity in search for another. In Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself, published by the acclaimed NYRB Classics, Bird explores these topics and castigates them with comic, satirical brilliance.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he and the Constitutionalists had in mind a particular end for the individual in a democracy. The idea was to give each individual the right to become their own end via the means they chose for themselves. The rich and the poor alike were given the political freedom to follow their dreams, to self-sustain beneath the umbrella of U.S. government protection. These were the ideas wrought from the Enlightenment, from hundreds of years of political and moral theory, and it was considered to be the best government structure—in principle and practice—in the history of the world. The policies were meritocratic and experimental in nature, molded from the idea that there is no nobler role of government than to allow its citizens the opportunity to safely and responsibly forge their own path in the world.

But what Jefferson and the other Constitutionalists failed to account for was the huge rift that would be created between the rich and poor, “a political complexion […] founded in, and perpetuated by, the folly of the richer classes.”[2] The economic structure was fashioned from the principle of equal opportunity, but what resulted was the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. Soon the opportunities of the wealthy greatly outnumbered those of the impoverished. This great division among people that were supposed to share an equal place in society created disparate perceptions: “The poor man in America, feels himself, in a political view, as he really is, the equal of the millionaire; but this very consciousness of equality adds bitterness to the actual sense of inferiority, which the richer and rather more fortunate do their best […] to keep alive.”[3]

This situation cultivated a deep and pervading sense of longing unto the poorer classes, the immigrants, the African-Americans. It was a hypocrisy that spawned indignation, for certain injustices were happening in America, the land where every man was supposed to be self-evidently equal, where this sort of unfairness ought not to have been happening. Citizens on the unfortunate side of the socio-political structure were cast further out, excluded from the decision-making process, left only to appeal, “Why should the folly of a feudal aristocracy prevail under the shadow of a purely democratic government?”[4] They found themselves wishing more and more to inhabit the lives of the privileged, hoping to inherit their advantages. The character of Sheppard Lee finds a cosmic loophole where this is actually possible for him, and what results is an absurd waltz into the American psyche where nothing, including the principles of his country, is what he thought it would be.

Slavery was obviously another American hypocrisy. In a land where all men were supposed to have legitimate opportunities for freedom and the American ideal, certain men and women were being bought and sold, treated sub-humanely, their happiness stripped from them before they had a chance to obtain it. To be a slave was to be “the victim of fortune, […] the exemplar of wretchedness, the true repository of all the griefs that can afflict a human being.”[5] These are not descriptions of equality. Bird was aware of the hypocrisy around him. He knew that the real America was a blatant contradiction to the ideals penned in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Sheppard Lee is Bird’s response to what he observed. It’s an attack on the life around him, highlighting the absurdities in order to draw attention to them, a picaresque adaptation of reality.

e He The hypocrisy of the political structure birthed a certain behavior in its citizens. It provoked lasting looks of envy from the poor onto the rich, from the slave unto the free man, it widened the gap between neighbor and friend. It forced people into constant comparative qualification. Equality of opportunity naturally evolved into a sort of Darwinian culture where the weaker or less qualified individuals were exploited by those gaining power with each business day, each acquisition. The character of Sheppard Lee is a symbol of the common American man. He is constantly in pursuit of curing what ails him, namely his imperfections, his insecurities. He feels that the only way to do this, once he has figured out his ability to occupy the bodies of the dead, is to seek out those unfortunate dead whose lives seemed to be better or happier than his. Lee is thus vicariously the jolly hunter, the playboy, the rich man, the morally perfect human being.

As the philanthropist character in Book V begins to see his life of charity and compassion unravel before him due to the ingratitude of his fellow men, he states rather profoundly that “man is an unthankful animal, and of such rare inconsistency of temper, that he seldom forgoes the opportunity to punish the virtue which he so loudly applauds.”[6] One could read this passage straightforwardly as it applies to the narrative, or they could also read it as an analogy about the duplicity in the principles of the United States that Bird observed and attacked. At this point in the book, the reader is well aware of Bird’s pattern of disappointing Sheppard Lee’s efforts at finally becoming content with who he is, whoever that may be. The fact that he is repeatedly upset in his effort to find happiness by infiltrating the body of the most morally pure dead person he could imagine leaves him to believe that, “I had experienced in my present adventure  […] doubts as to the reality of any human happiness.”[7]

Bird had keen observational skills to see the contradictions between those engraved in the United States Constitution and the actual daily social rigors in young America. But these things could have been seen even by those who chose to turn their attention from them. I might even make the argument that the rift between the haves and the have-nots is today considerably wider than in Bird’s America.

The novelist’s value in a society is his or her ability to shape and influence the culture. Bird did this by drawing attention to the inconsistencies in his society, pointing the finger at the innate hypocrisy in American idealism. He saw the way social stratification affected the individual in society and diluted their notions of identity, how it forced them to look at others in either envy or disgust. In Sheppard Lee, Bird exercised his acute understanding of the impractical democratic experiment and its effects, primarily the “political evils which demagoguism, agrarianism, […] and all other isms of vulgar stamp [it] brought upon the land.”[8]

What we see in Sheppard Lee, through Bird’s narrative about the blurred notion of identity, is a man chasing his preconceived notions of happiness, jumping from social status to social status in the pursuit of happiness, only to find something wrong, something to lament about his new body and personage with each new identity. It is a narrative both funny and sad, both audacious and absurd, and at times a promotion of prejudice as equally contradictory to the truth as Bird’s America.


[1] Jefferson, Thomas, in Koch, Adrienne. The American Enlightenment. George Brazillier Press, New York, 1965, 378. [2] Bird, Robert Montgomery. Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself. New York Review of Books, New York, 2008, 305. [3] Bird, 306. [4] Bird, 306. [5] Bird, 332. [6] Bird, 271. [7] Bird, 304. [8] Bird, Robert Montgomery, 306.

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