Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn
The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).
Impeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally. During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar. Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training. Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students. This was nothing new. A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses. But there is a strange twist to this true story. The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era. For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery. This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved. Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.
Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax. He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus. Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.
Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story. In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.
Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him. They are his owners; he is their slave. One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife. Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.
Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo. When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period. More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name. Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday. Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself. His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study. This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized. Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death. To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.
“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice. Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.” He has adapted simply out of necessity.
In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother. Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman. Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry. The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons. Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.
No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him. Instead, his
activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him. Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men. Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it. Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.
In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity. And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.
This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me. By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.
“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”
Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.
Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down. My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake. Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.