This essay analyzes the discourse of the fugitive slave advertisement (FSA) to argue that these texts form what I call a “genre of personhood.” Centered on physical and behavioral descriptions of escaped slaves, FSAs offer a window into the heuristics that slaveholders used to identify, explain, and anticipate slaves’ behavior in the antebellum era, constructing an implicit model of enslaved personhood by means of consistent syntactic patterns and semantic tropes. I argue for the continuity of these texts’ descriptive and scriptive (or instructive) functions, finding that FSAs conscript the white reader into searching for a fugitive not only through overt appeals but by structuring the reader’s perceptual experiences via linguistic cues. Ultimately, the essay not only excavates the opportunistic and incomplete construction of personhood from heterogeneous materials but also reveals the interdependence of literary description and extraliterary genres like the FSA.

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