Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Review: "The Algerine Captive"

Royall Tyler is one of the most fascinating characters of early American literature, and his only finished novel, The Algerine Captive (first published in 1797) is an amusing, witty and biting satire of American social and political culture during the early republic and a stinging indictment of African slavery. Tyler's narrator is Updike Underhill, a buttoned-down New Englander who, in the opening chapters of the novel, reminds the reader of no one so much as Ichabod Crane, a scholarly naif who seems destined to a long life of being the butt of others' jokes. But when he agrees to serve as a doctor aboard a slave ship, and is then captured by Barbary pirates and forced into slavery in Algiers, the humor fades and Underhill is forced to confront his assumptions and examine the stark differences between American culture and the North African society in which he involuntarily finds himself.

Tyler must have done a remarkable amount of research for this book - his description of the treatment of newly-captured slaves is gripping, and his several chapters on the customs and culture of Algiers are fascinatingly detailed, even if there may be slight factual errors.

Not surprisingly, Tyler's work, focused as it is on a conflict between the United States and Islamic nations, has grown in popularity over course of the last few years. The edition I read was published in 2002 by Modern Library (and includes an excellent introduction and very useful notes by Caleb Crain). Like few other examples of early American fiction, it retains a sense of timeliness and occasional humor, and its message continues to resonate.