Religion, Revenge, and Reed’s Haunted Convict
In Austin Reed’s The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, Reed uses religion to explain his various emotions and opinions, especially ones related to justice. The two passages in this paper highlight how his attitude towards religion and revenge changes from when he is young to when he grows older, suggesting a maturity that comes with age and imprisonment. Though readers cannot be sure if the writer actually changes or if it just the character in the memoir, the way Reed uses religion in these two contexts do shape the novel into a story of personal growth and maturity. The differences in these passages shows Reed’s growth, through their medium, argument, and goals.
The first passage is notable for young Reed’s use of religious language to convince Strongman to help him hurt Mr. Terry. When Reed asks what Strongman thinks about his plan, Strongman responds that it “will be shedding blood,” to which Reed exclaims, “Oh, you poor miserable fool, have you never read the law of Moses, where he says blood for blood?” (95). Strongman attempts to bring up other biblical phrases to dissuade Reed, such as “thou shalt not kill,” to which Reed says, “Great God, no more of your scripture lessons. Did that old tyrant think that it was a hard crime when he was pelting us with the cats? Or did he think that he was doing justice before God, when he was shedding our blood for the sake of gratifying a black hearted nigger?” In this passage young Reed, who is only around ten years old, uses religion to try to convince Strongman to help him inflict revenge on Mr. Terry for “pelting” them. The second passage in this paper focuses on Reed’s reaction to Colonel Richardson’s advice at the end of the memoir. It functions as Reed’s meditation on religions justice, as he plans how he will get God to seek what is right not in this lifetime, but instead the next. It reads as Reed’s thoughts on religion after speaking to Colonel Richardson, and because it is only his thoughts they seem like they are directly for the reader. Reed writes, “But in that day when I shall stand before God, I’ll show him my back where the tyrant has printed it with the cats, and will point him to a dark and a gloomy dungeon where I’ve laid my head many a cold night, without a bed or a blanket, and some days not a morsel of bread to eat, and I will point him to the showering bath and tell him of the water that has been showered on my head. I will show him the tyrants that has tortured and tormented me during my confinement within the gloomy walls of a prison. Those who might have done me a heap of good turned to be my destroyers, and took away all of the good principles and reasons to which I was endowed with, and the high and noble mind which God had given to me have all been destroyed by hard usage and a heavy club. The very prayers which my mother printed upon my lips have all been wash away beneath the waters of a showering bath” (207). In this passage Reed decides to seek justice first by reforming, and then showing God what his oppressors have done to him throughout his life. These passages display tension partly because one works through dialogue and one is more of a meditation, but also because the contrast between the two highlights the tension between young and old Reed.
In the first passage, Reed speaks to Strongman in an argumentative way, whereas in the second Reed speaks directly to the reader as he explains how God will help him find justice. The difference in the formal characteristics of these two passages highlights the doubleness in prison memoirs, as the first passage feels more like the characters are speaking, whereas the second passage feels more like the writer is speaking to the readers. Additionally, the fact Reed included and wrote this passage, which only details his thoughts, speaks to his desire to show the reader how he has changed. The passages are also different because in the first passage Reed quotes biblical language to justify violence, but in the second he does not quote anyone. Instead Reed speaks of a transcendental justice through God, as he will show him the “tyrants that has tortured and tormented” him and not seek “blood for blood.” The difference in these passages highlights the hot-headed nature of young Reed as he uses the biblical quotes to justify his violence against Mr. Terry. The contrast of the reflective nature of Reed’s older self to his argumentative younger self demonstrates his character development through the memoir.
While both these passage fall into themes of religion and revenge, they highlight a logical contradiction in the ways Reed will seek justice on his oppressors, as one is through violence and the other through God. In the first passage, Reed seeks revenge through “blood for blood,” denoting a violent attack on Mr. Terry. Additionally, young Reed even uses religion to justify his anger and annoyment towards Strongman, claiming that he must not have read “the Law of Moses” if he does not agree with the plan. The second passage reveals a much more mature, tame way to approach seeking justice. Reed does not insist on seeking violence to those who “printed [his] back in cats,” as instead he will lead God to them. He will point out “who might have done [him] a heap of good turned to be [his] destroyers, and took away all of [his] good principles and reasons.” The major difference between these two passages is the tension between whether or not Reed should proactively seek justice, or if only God can. The first passage highlights the fiery nature of young Reed, especially as he gets annoyed at Strongman for rejecting his plan. Reed insults Strongman, calling him a “poor miserable fool,” and says, “Great God, no more of your scripture lessons.” This crafts Reed into a young, indignant boy who believes he has to correct the mistakes of others through violence. The second passage illustrates older Reed as a more patient, mature adult who will leave justice up to God. In this way the logic of the passages contradict each other, because though both center around the themes of justice and religion, the way in which Reed uses them alter greatly.
The third way these passages show tension is the way in which Reed’s rhetorical goals differ, highlighting the character development he tries to develop through the memoir. In the first passage, Reed sounds much younger and less mature due to his spotanity and aggression towards Mr. Terry. In it Reed asks Strongman if Mr. Terry was thinking of God when he “was pelting [them] with cats,” as a way to justify hurting him in the name of God. This is immature logic, especially when contrasted with the more sophisticated argument in the second passage where Reed explains he will just wait for God to make the final judgement. The second passage also works to convince the readers that because of his time in prison, Reed was able to change. The passage comes toward the end of the memoir, after Reed has been through all of his imprisonment, thus this change speaks to his character development. Though the reader cannot be sure who actually changed, if it was the protagonist in the memoir or the writer himself, it still reinforces the character development. This unsureness speaks to the duality of memoirs and prison writing as a whole, as readers can never be exactly sure of the difference between the character and the writer.
These two passages, though they follow the same themes, are in constant tension each other as one comes from a younger Reed and the second comes from and older one. These passages highlight the way Reed changed through the memoir, or the way he wanted the reader to believe he did. Additionally, the fact older Reed still believes in seeking justice on those who wronged him shows that despite all he has been through, he will never get over the unfairness of his situation. In a way, the whole memoir is an explanation how the “tyrants” wronged Reed while he was imprisoned. Perhaps he even wrote the memoir to bring to light the unfairness in his life and in a way sought justice through writing.
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