by Emily Graham, ’22 (CLAS)
Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in September 2019, Professor Martha J. Cutter spent most of her pandemic time investigating the life of Henry Box Brown, an American man who shipped himself from slavery to freedom in 1849. Culminating in the release of her book, The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown, we sat down with Professor Cutter to discuss her research, the NEH Grant, and the amazing opportunities that this grant has given her.
“I’ve always been interested in African American literature,” Martha J. Cutter, professor of English and Africana Studies, tells me when we first sit down to meet in November. “UConn intrigued me because I had the opportunity to join the Africana Studies Institute. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to further my academic interests and scholarship.”
By the time that she first arrived at UConn in 2006, Professor Cutter had already published two books focused on the intersection of race, ethnicity, and written narrative. Now, five years after her third book, The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown will be her newest publication, spurred by the receipt of an NEH Grant in September 2019.
While NEH Grants are given to scholars across all Humanities disciplines, their goals for their recipients, like Professor Cutter, are the same. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the grant supplied funding for her research on Henry Box Brown so that she could complete her book project. And while she knew that the NEH funded only about 5 percent of their applicants, she applied because she had amassed so much research that she didn’t have time to parse through it in her free time. “I knew that NEH is very competitive, but I was confident in what I had found by the time I submitted my application,” she explains. “Research on Brown is quite rare, so I thought that this project on Brown’s life and art would be appealing. NEH’s board enjoys interdisciplinary and non-unidimensional topics, and that’s perfect for me since a lot of my English research has to do with historical and social contexts.”
Once the grant was awarded, the rest was soon history. Inspired by her research on him for a previous book titled The Illustrated Slave: Empathy, Graphic Narrative, and the Visual Culture of the Transatlantic Abolition Movement, 1800–1852 (2016), Professor Cutter became fascinated by the incredible life story of Henry Box Brown —an enslaved man who, in 1849, purchased a postal crate in Virginia and mailed himself to Philadelphia for freedom.
Her year-long fellowship, “Slavery as Spectacle: The Lives and Afterlives of Henry Box Brown, the Man who Mailed Himself to Freedom,” was eye-opening. “I was able to discover aspects of his life that few people knew,” Professor Cutter noted. “I was the first person to figure out that he acted in three stage plays — one based on his life story — while he lived abroad in England. I found that he journeyed back and forth between England, Canada, and the USA. I found his gravestone — no one had realized that he died in Toronto — and I traced his lineage to some of his living family.” But what fascinated her the most was the irony of Brown’s predicament. “He had to become cargo—inanimate goods in a box— to free himself from his status as human property. And while that’s very sad, I’m interested in how Brown turned that into something more positive.”
Professor Cutter also discovered that Brown went on to become a skilled performer in England. As part of his shows, he hypnotized British individuals on stage, making them think they were sheep and gobbling down raw cabbage, much to their chagrin. He had magic acts in which he would be shackled and swaddled in a heavy canvas, and then emerge miraculously free after just a few seconds. He dabbled in science, healing, street performance, ventriloquism, and even dark seances. Professor Cutter also learned that Brown “actually carried and used his box for performance, which raised questions in me as to how Brown dealt with the trauma of enslavement.” She hypothesizes that in some of his acts he was able to turn his traumatic history of enslavement into what she calls “a space of freedom and reinvention.”
Her extensive research and writing certainly paid off. Professor Cutter’s newest publication is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press in October 2022, and she is often contacted to give interviews about Brown’s life or to help other scholars pursue research about him. “I’m glad that I got the fellowship for many reasons. For one, the book is longer than I expected — it’s 350 pages without the index!” she joked. “But I’m so grateful that this fellowship allowed me to devote my full time to this man’s unbelievable story. That’s truly an honor.”