This article argues that the unusual depiction of metempsychosis central to Robert Montgomery Bird's 1836 novel Sheppard Lee exposes instabilities in the notion of property that is foundational to John Locke's Second Treatise on Government. Key to this argument is a feature of Lee's metempsychosis that scholars have largely ignored: even though Lee's character undergoes radical change each time he enters a new body, aspects of original character always persist despite his new physical circumstances. Through these incongruities between Lee's spirit and matter, the novel explores the disconnect between the United States' Lockean ideals and its very un-Lockean patterns of property ownership—a disconnect that became acute within Jacksonian democracy. In doing so, Sheppard Lee reframes a wider debate among early American writers about the future of the novel in the United States. The most pressing question for the American novel was not, as Bird's contemporaries believed, whether the establishment of European-style hereditary estates was necessary to foster a homegrown American novel tradition. Rather, Sheppard Lee suggests, it was whether Americans could form any truly stable attachments to their land.

You do not currently have access to this content.