Originally published in 1836.
Sheppard Lee, Written By Himself is a work of dark satire from the early years of the American Republic. Published as an autobiography and praised by Edgar Allan Poe, this is the story of a young idler who goes in search of buried treasure and finds instead the power to transfer his soul into other men's bodies. What follows is one increasingly practiced body snatcher's picaresque journey through early American pursuits of happiness, as each new form Sheppard Lee assumes disappoints him anew while making him want more and more. When Lee's metempsychosis draws him into the marriage market, the money market, and the slave market, Bird's fable of American upward mobility takes a more sinister turn. Lee learns that everything in America, even virtue and vice, are interchangeable; everything is an object and has its price.
Looking forward to Melville's The Confidence-Man and beyond that to William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, this strange and compelling story is a penetrating critique of American life and values as well as a crucial addition to the canon of American literature.
"Sheppard Lee is an antebellum novel like no other: a psychological picaresque in which the narrator survives the death of his body only to possess a succession of corpses as a spirit. Moving up and down the social and economic ladder in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Virginia, Sheppard Lee embodies, among other identities, a gouty brewer, a miserly moneylender, and a slave. Equal parts comedy of manners, satire of sentimentality, and critique of antebellum political culture, Sheppard Lee also offers a vivid portrait of early American life."
— Justine Murison, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
"An unjustly forgotten masterpiece, Sheppard Lee inspired Poe's tales of metempsychosis, 'The Gold Bug,' and the juiciest parts of Melville's Israel Potter. It also gave Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom his name. This novel of lost bodies and wandering spirits, with slavery's transformations of persons into things as background, introduces that 'other' American Renaissance—one of surreal disguises and hidden taints—which depended not on fiction but on history for its most gothic plots."
— Colin Dayan, Vanderbilt University
“Like Philothea, this novel is an original in American Belles Lettres at least; and these deviations, however indecisive, from the more beaten paths of imitation, look well for our future literary prospects...We must regard Sheppard Lee, upon the whole, as a very clever…jeu d’esprit.” —Edgar Allen Poe, Southern Literary Messenger
“There is a fund of amusement in it, displaying an intimate acquaintance with the lights and shades of human character.” —The New Yorker
“Of all the native productions of the season, commend us to Sheppard Lee…a delicious bundle of all sorts of clever intellectual wares.” —New York Monthly Magazine
“This is one of the most original and ingenious works of fiction that has been produced in the United States. As a mere novel, it is exceedingly entertaining; as a satire, with much of broad caricature, it is still generally pointed and just; as a ‘morality,’ it is excellent…the author...is a bold and vigorous writer; and we acknowledge that it is long, very long, since we read an American novel that gave us half the pleasure we have derived from the perusal of Sheppard Lee…a work completely sui generis.” —The American Monthly Magazine
“One of the most amusing books that has been published for a long time, and one for which we predict an extensive demand…The book will well repay one for its perusal.” —Family Magazine
“The book abounds with whim and burlesque, pointed but playful satire, and felicitous sketches of society.” —Home Journal
“Of the many books of the present season, Sheppard Lee is most to our liking.” —The Ladies’ Companion