If you’re a student of African American literature or of the nineteenth century in the United States, you may have already heard about Johanna Ortner’s rediscovery of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s first book, Forest Leaves, which has long been assumed lost—perhaps even apocryphal.
This find, shared in the current issue of Common-place, should push us to reconsider how we talk—and don’t talk—about an amazing poet, novelist, essayist, lecturer, and activist whose career spanned seven decades. Harper (1825-1911) has gained a firm place in studies of American literature and culture, but that recognition came only grudgingly and remains far too limited. It is time for more rediscovery.
Her work was initially kept from a white-dominated academy because of her race, gender, politics, and aesthetics. Even supportive critics echoed the backhanded praise of W.E.B. Du Bois’s comments on her poetry and broader work: “She was not a great singer, but she had some sense of song; she was not a great writer, but she wrote much worth reading.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Harper’s work moved more completely into American literary scholarship and its classrooms. Even then, it was often Iola Leroy—Harper’s 1892 novel about slavery, Reconstruction, and racial struggle—that garnered attention after it was finally made available in paperback in 1987. The next few years saw both a landmark edition of Harper’s poetry (part of Oxford’s Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers) and an omnibus multi-genre collection with immensely valuable apparatus (A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, edited by Frances Smith Foster). But Harper’s work was still often dismissed as too didactic, too formulaic, too polemical. One pro-Harper article published in 1988 was even titled “Is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Good Enough to Teach?”
The years that followed, though, saw a growing group of scholars argue for accepting Harper on her own terms. Scholars like Foster, Hazel Carby, Carla Peterson, Maryemma Graham, and John Ernest alerted us to her writing’s breadth and its multi-faceted depth, reminded us of how much Harper’s contemporaries valued her work, and pushed us to think about the contexts surrounding both production and reception. These years also saw crucial discoveries that widened our sense of Harper’s oeuvre—especially, in 2000, with Foster’s edition of three of her novels that were serialized in the African Methodist Episcopal Church newspaper, the Christian Recorder, but never published between boards.
I’m anxious to see what scholars will say as they encounter Forest Leaves for the first time, as a group of my undergraduates will later this semester. The rediscovery offers both “new” poems and new contexts for poems included in her later collections. It also means that we need to question a host of assumptions about Harper, including the longstanding placement of the “beginnings” of her creative work amid a Boston-Philadelphia nexus of abolitionism in the 1850s. Now we can more fully situate the budding poet in antebellum Baltimore, a place readers of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative would remember being sarcastically referred to as “the Christian city of Baltimore,” a site Douglass marked as full of “bloody-minded” racism.
As we once again rediscover Harper, I’m wondering if this will be the moment when more scholars admit just how much of a presence Harper had in nineteenth-century literature and culture—even if circumscribed by a racist public sphere—and how important her work is today.
In this spirit, I offer a handful of the myriad ways Harper could be integrated into broader discussions of literature and history.
Want more on Solomon Northup’s narrative, the basis for the 2013 blockbuster, Twelve Years a Slave? Try Harper’s October 20, 1854 letter shared in William Still’s Underground Rail Road, which discusses the narrative in advocating for the Free Produce movement.
Want a companion to Toni Morrison’s Beloved that tells much about nineteenth-century Black senses of Margaret Garner? Try Harper’s “The Slave Mother, A Tale of Ohio” (pages 40-42 in the 1857 expansion of Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects).
Or for an especially powerful sense of the wake of Harper’s Ferry, read Harper’s letters tied to John Brown (see pages 762-763 in William Still’s Underground Rail Road, for example). Pair this with the amazing poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” which was sent to one of John Brown’s jailed men.
Or read the stunning brief remembrance of Lincoln in “The Deliverance,” a poem published in her 1872 Sketches of Southern Life that I teach next to Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
While we’re mentioning Sketches of Southern Life, I’ll submit that no course on Reconstruction is complete without reading some of this collection, which was deeply shaped by Harper’s travels in the South after the Civil War.
Want a stunning late nineteenth-century addition to the Ferguson Syllabus or to discussions of Black Lives Matter? Read “The Martyr of Alabama,” Harper’s 1894 poem written on “Tim Thompson, a little negro boy” who “was asked to dance for the amusement of some white toughs.” When he refused because “he was a church member,” he was murdered.
These lines still echo: “And rocks and stones, if ye could speak, / Ye well might melt to tears.” Part of my fascination with them comes from the fact that Harper repurposed these lines from her antebellum “Bible Defense of Slavery,” which appeared in Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects but had an earlier life in Forest Leaves. Leave it to Harper to remind us of how much 1894 looked like the 1840s – or 2015.
The list could go on. Each of Harper’s texts offers an amazing doorway to a nineteenth century we’ve only begun to glimpse, and each beckons us to think and act. With the rediscovery of Forest Leaves, we have even more doors and even more reasons to take the journeys they offer.
Image Credit: “Contrabands [escaped slaves] at the headquarters of General Lafayette” by Matthew B. Brady. Public Domain via the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.