When he published his novel, Robert Montgomery Bird satirized antebellum American society through his Sheppard Lee: Written By Himself. But the novel’s satire applies just as well to our contemporary American society, shaped by Instagram and other social media services. In fact, much of the novel’s plot seems allegorical, warning future audiences of their perpetual lust for their limited visions of others’ “success” as well as their propensity to be manipulated. In these ways, Sheppard Lee parallels a world revolving around social media.
Scrolling through Instagram is often the combination of the highlight reels of the lives of friends and celebrities, overwhelming one with photos of glamorous travels and perfectly photogenic moments. A frequent reaction is envy, a sentiment with which Sheppard Lee is intimately familiar. In the novel, after his beginning stint as a failing, self-un-made man, Lee realizes his desire to become Squire Higginson, a brewer from Philadelphia considered far more successful than himself. “How much better it would be…to inhabit his body than my own! In my own fleshly casing, I should revive only to poverty and trouble…if once in the body of Squire Higginson, I should step out into the world to possess riches, respect, content, and all that man covets. Oh that I might be Squire Higginson!” he exclaims (52). His jealousy runs deep, as if he is lusting after Twitter or Instagram’s blue “verified” checkmarks, the follower counts of his more popular peers, the magnificent lives of the Instagram rich and famous. Especially in an increasingly dark world, these magnificent lives function as an escape, allowing users to live vicariously through influencers’ literally-filtered realities. Lee, seeing his continued failings, is attempting to rescue his sinking reputation, escaping to Higginson’s higher ground.
Envy or living vicariously, however, do not begin to communicate where Sheppard Lee goes next. “The words were scarce out of my mouth, before I felt myself vanishing, as it were, into the dead man’s nostrils, into which I—that is to say, my spirit—rushed like a breeze of air” (52). And with that, at least by his description, Lee becomes Squire Higginson, in full flesh. (It is an “Instagram takeover,” but for human bodies, one might say.) He takes only a second to bid farewell to the “poor miserable Sheppard Lee,” for he is now “a gentleman and a man of substance.” Even his pronouns shift: he starts calling Higginson’s do “my dog” (53). But readers soon discover that for all the glory Lee predicted, being Squire Higginson has its own set of drawbacks, such as the fact that he is soon accused of murdering Sheppard Lee, for the prior corpse was spotted next to Higginson. (Drama!) Lee also discovers his peer’s incredibly painful condition of gout—under the jolly face, there is an opposite side to the brewer’s overindulgence, one the man would not have posted on his curated feed. The disappointing results of Lee’s adventures continue, as he successively inhabits the bodies of a penniless gentleman, a miser, an abolitionist Quaker, a slave, a questionable variety of non-mummy. Nobody, it seems, has the perfect life of “riches, respect, content, and all that man covets.” The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, or so says the old adage. For Lee, his envy and lust lead him through a harrowing adventure including multiple corpse-takeovers and spanning many states across the East Coast, but he fails to find the euphoria he seeks. Obsessive feed-scrollers likely relate to this internal emptiness.
At the end of Sheppard Lee’s extensive adventure, after assuming many physical bodies, he manages to slip back into his own corpse. He returns to his home, Watermelon Hill, and makes a speedy recovery. The novel is seeming to finish on a happy note; he receives “the visits and congratulations of many old friends” (414). But one line is soon slipped in, throwing this tale into question, at least for readers who are yet to question Lee’s reality. “How did you know I had gone far? I thought the general opinion was that I was murdered,” our Lee asks of his sister (414). She replies: “Oh yes…it was just as you say,” and her husband agrees. “It was just as you say”—so this whole story might be a tall tale? Or perhaps Lee’s fantastical dream? Is Sheppard Lee, who began his story as a dishonest idler, just lying and manipulating his readers the whole way through? Meanwhile, to say photos on Instagram are sometimes manipulated would be a massive understatement. While not always the case, for many influencers’ feeds, not only are the photos filtered, models are Photoshopped, airbrushed, and even deceptively shaped with physical props; an app called Facetune makes some of these tools even easier to use. While manipulating photographs is far from a new phenomenon, there is a more contemporary wave of “identity fraud,” too: the rise of utterly fake models. Lil Miquela (1.7m followers) and Shudu Gram (193k) are both Instagram influencers who are entirely computer-rendered, having no physical bodies but nonetheless inspiring the lust of many across the social network. Credit card scams online are as old as the internet and social media themselves, but these forms of fraud are far more nuanced, as are Lee’s. We have no physical precedent for inhabiting a succession of corpses, but the fraud Bird writes of in his early novel lives on through manipulated photographs and simulated-human celebrities.
If Sheppard Lee were on Instagram, I have no doubt he would make desperate attempts to be an influencer, making appearances of great success and vying for followers. But behind the curtain of @sheppardlee (and the handle is available) would lay a man consumed by insecurity and resentful desire, a man perpetrating fraud on his audience. The satirical themes Sheppard Lee exhibits ring just as true nearly two centuries later, to an America obsessed with whatever tops the trending charts of social networks each day. Lee’s character portrays envy and a form of identity fraud that may seem unparalleled, but have very much lived on. If the novel makes any indication, perhaps his fickle attention is merely our nature.