Oroonoko continues to strike new readers with its sheer historical surprise: the first English woman author to have had a full professional career, nearing the end of her life, set down an unexampled tale of a black African prince betrayed into slavery in a New World English colony. Though writing in evident haste - 'I never rested my Pen a Moment for Thought' (iii, p. 56) - Behn produced a story so original and so powerful that it started a procession of Oroonoko-like figures in stories, plays, poems, and popular news reports. When her name and writings sank into disrepute, Oroonoko remained the work for which she was most steadily remembered. After interest in her writing revived, beginning around 1900, it gradually gained notice as a literary novelty, even a small classic in its own right. Current attention to women's writing and to matters of race have now combined to make it, for all its pell-mell sentences, perhaps the most widely reprinted and studied prose tale to come from early modern England. Yet for a comparatively short tale, Oroonoko has had a distracting variety of readings. Over three centuries, the exceptional woman author and her singular black hero seem to have stood on radically shifting grounds.
These shifts reflect, of course, what readers of different periods have looked for in literary works and have singled out in writings by women; but they also reflect a broadening comprehension of the vast global changes that lie behind Behn’s tale, enriching some peoples, dispossessing or destroying others, and transforming beyond recognition the world of the Atlantic basin. Early readers spoke of Oroonoko as the ‘True History’ announced in its subtitle, about an exotic prince Behn had known on her travels and was moved to memorialize.
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