Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three Novels by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) was a writer and what we might today call a political activist, although she seems to have expressed herself mostly in religious terms. Her novel Iola Leroy is said to be one of the earliest known novels by an African-American. For many years it was believed that she had written no other novels, but three more were discovered and republished in 1994. I haven't read Iola Leroy, but the set of three books impressed me so much that I wanted to blog about them.

They are not only fascinating for historical reasons, but also entertaining to read.

These novels were serialized in a religious magazine. The modern-day editor remarks on the fact that they had almost no proofreading or editing performed upon them (in fact, contemporary subscribers complained about the number of typos throughout the paper.) Nonetheless they are well written. I don't believe I have read better dialogue anywhere.

Harper was devoted to both women's rights and the rights of black Americans. These days, black feminists frequently complain that they feel as if they have to choose between one or the other . . . as if feminism is a "white thing" and racial solidarity requires no complaints about sexism. Harper seems to have felt no such conflict. It's interesting that she also displays no interest in working with white feminists.

Anyway, on to the novels.
  • Minnie's Sacrifice (first published 1869) - deals with "passing" and the Reconstruction era, a time of tremendous joy and disillusionment. Those who had lived to see the end of slavery, after so many years, discover that some things still have not changed.
    ". . . when Mrs. Hickman said, 'Well, Sarah, I really pity you,' I saw her dark eyes flash, and she has really beautiful eyes, as she said, 'it is not pity we want, it is justice.'"
  • Sowing and Reaping (first published 1876-77) - a temperance story. One noteworthy thing about it is that the race of the characters is not specified at all. I almost wondered if it was set in some future time when racial discrimination no longer existed but alcoholism was still a problem. It shows that Harper cared deeply about many issues.
  • Trial and Triumph (first published 1888-89) - Frances Smith Foster, the editor, suggests that there are autobiographical elements in this book. It is the story of an intelligent, socially rather awkward, but tender-hearted girl who wants to make her way in the world, despite relatives who misunderstand her and prejudice from society. I learned from reading this book that only white girls were allowed to work in factories - and now we think of that as being demeaning work.
    ". . . Nor did she lay all the household burdens on the shoulders of the girls and leave her boys to the mercy of the pavement; she tried to make her home happy and taught them all to have a share in adding to its sunshine. 'It makes boys selfish,' she would say, 'to have their sisters do all the work and let the boys go scot-free. I don't believe there would be so many trifling men if the boys were trained to be more helpful at home and to feel more for their mothers and sisters.'"
All of these novels are on Project Gutenberg. Check them out!

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