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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a celebrated orator and social activist, was one of the most popular black poets of the nineteenth century. Today, she is considered a minor poet of the abolitionist era whose works possess historic rather than artistic significance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Early Propensity for Literature
According to her longtime friend and fellow activist William Still, Harper was born on September 24, 1825, to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, then a slave state. Within three years she was orphaned and living with relatives, most likely in the home of her uncle, William Watkins. A dedicated abolitionist and defender of civil rights, Watkins ran a school for free black youths that was well known for its classical academic orientation and strict standards of behavior. Harper attended the school until she was thirteen years old, the age at which she was expected to begin earning a living. She excelled in her uncle’s unusually sophisticated course of study. In particular, she learned both literary and oratorical skills and a sense of responsibility to moral, political, and religious concerns. She took her first job working in the home of the Armstrong family, where her responsibilities included caring for the children, sewing, and keeping house. Noticing young Frances’s propensity for literature, her employers allowed her access to the wealth of their family-run bookstore during her spare time.
At the age of twenty, Harper published her first book of poems, Forest Leaves (c. 1845), of which no known copies exist. The publication of this volume ushered Harper into a small group of African American writers able to print literature. Around 1850, Harper left Baltimore, moving to Ohio to become the first female teacher at Union Seminary, a school founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. William Watkins had left for Canada, after being forced to sell his house and his school in the hostile environment following the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and its new provisions for remanding fugitives from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, a part of the Compromise of 1850, meant that free blacks could be taken into custody as an escaped slave based solely on the sworn claim of a white person, and that anyone harboring an alleged runaway slave could be fined and imprisoned. After working for some time in Ohio, Harper discovered she was not suited to teaching, though she had great respect for that profession. in her later fiction she always pays homage to those who choose teaching as a profession, often giving her heroes, regardless of gender, the task of educating the newly emancipated population.
Commitment to the Antislavery Cause
During the early 1850s, Maryland passed a new law that made it illegal for free blacks to enter the state on punishment of enslavement. This law made Harper a further outcast in a country that already discriminated against anyone identified as of African heritage. Punctuating her exile was the fate of a young man who had entered Maryland only to be captured and returned to slavery. He managed to escape but was soon recaptured and died from exposure. From this horrific story, so real a possibility for her had she attempted to return home, was born her ardent commitment to antislavery. She wrote, ”Upon that grave i pledged myself to the Anti-Slavery cause.”
Harper then moved briefly to Philadelphia. She began publishing her poems in various abolitionist papers, including the Liberator, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and the Provincial Freeman. After delivering her first lectures in Boston, she was invited to a position as lecturer for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society, becoming the only black person and one of few women on the circuit. Her first extant volume, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), was published in Philadelphia. The great popularity of this work brought Harper to the attention of a wider audience and facilitated her way into abolitionist circles. The book was reprinted several times, selling more than twelve thousand copies within five years.
Harper’s long career as a fiction writer began with the publication of ”The Two Offers” (1859), the earliest known short story by an African American writer. The story appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine, one of the first literary journals entirely devoted to the written efforts of African Americans. The story is significant both in its own right and also for what it reveals about many of the issues that concerned Harper throughout her life.
Marriage and Family Life
Harper chose not to marry until 1860, when she was thirty-five years old. She married a widower, Fenton Harper, and moved to a farm in Ohio, purchased largely with her own savings. A few years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary, who joined Fen-ton’s three children from a previous marriage. Although Harper contributed to the household economy by making and selling butter, she continued to be active in public life.
Disaster struck Harper when Fenton Harper died on May 23,1864, leaving her with four small children to feed, and his creditors descended to claim everything they had jointly owned to pay debts she did not know he had. Though she had always been sensitive to women’s concerns, this experience brought Harper new appreciation for women’s powerlessness under the law. This experience reconfirmed Harper’s stated belief that women should not be solely dependent on men. She rededicated herself to the causes of abolition and equal rights for all. Within months of her husband’s death, Harper had moved to New England with her daughter, and she was again giving public lectures. Meanwhile, the Civil War raged on, with Americans of all color in both the Northern Union and Southern Confederacy anxiously awaiting the outcome.
Reconstruction in the South
After the Civil War, Harper devoted her energies to the newly freed black population and the work of reconstructing the war-battered South. She concluded her first tour of the South in 1867 and returned to Philadelphia, but went back less than a year later, traveling to all but two southern states between 1868 and 1871. During this busy time, Harper also published a serialized novel and three additional books of poetry. Poems (1871) collected poems that mostly had previously been published separately. Some critics consider Moses, A Story of the Nile (1869), a book-length poem in blank verse on the Old Testament patriarch, to be the height of Harper’s poetic endeavors. Sketches of Southern Life (1872), a series of poems based on Harper’s travels, received critical acclaim for its experimentation with black dialect and its focus on folk characters. Harper also experimented with dialect in Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story (1869), her first novel, which was serialized in the Christian Recorder. She went even further in her exploration of dialect and folk wisdom in Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), her last and most famous novel. Both of these novels focus on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Similarly, Trial and Triumph (1888-1889) confronts the parallel themes of racial and gender inequality.
Minnie’s Sacrifice was published while Union troops still occupied Southern territory; the subsequent three novels were published after Union troops had withdrawn and efforts at Reconstruction had failed. Racial violence and other forms of racial oppression were facts of everyday life in the South. Harper decided not to devote her energies to depicting this violence but instead to focus on strategies for building black communities from within. Harper continued to be active in organizations for progressive political and social change until the end of her life. In 1896 she helped to found the National Association of Colored Women, becoming its vice president the following year. This organization brought together such notable women activists as Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrel, and Ida Wells-Barnett in addressing on a national scale the struggle for civil rights for blacks and women.
Harper also was active in the Universal Peace Union from at least 1893 until her death in 1911. The Peacemaker, the official organ of the organization, often carried notices of Harper’s speeches to the assembly and copies of her poems, one published as late as 1909. Harper’s health declined after 1901. Though offered assistance by several convalescent homes, some of which she had helped establish, she refused, citing her desire for independence and love of liberty. Her daughter, Mary, who apparently lived with her throughout her life, died a short time before she did. Harper died on February 22, 1911.
Works in Literary Context
Harper captivated audiences with dramatic recitations of her antislavery and social reform verse. A social lecturer whose long life was devoted to abolition, freedmen’s rights, Christian temperance, and women’s suffrage, Harper used prose and poetry to enhance her message and stir audience emotions. While she wrote against slavery, she also broke away from the purely propagandistic mode of the antislavery poet and became one of the first black writers to focus on national and universal issues.
Antislavery and Social Reform
Imitative of the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, the poems in Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects are primarily anti-slavery narratives. Although Harper believed that black writers ”must write less of issues that are particular and more of feelings that are general,” most of her poetry is about the issue of slavery. For example, Sketches of Southern
Life, a collection of poems considered one of her best works, is narrated by ex-slaves Aunt Chloe and Uncle Jacob. With wit and charm, they provide a commentary on the concerns of Southern blacks: family, education, religion, slavery, and Reconstruction. Harper extends upon her treatment of these themes in her fiction works.
Women’s Suffrage and Temperance
Harper consistently supported women’s suffrage—or right to vote— in her writings. In Minnie’s Sacrifice, Sketches of Southern Life, and Sowing and Reaping, for example, she includes debates about the appropriateness of women voting. The discussion in Minnie’s Sacrifice entered into the suffrage debate just after the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted by Congress and was being ratified by the states. The debate over the wording of the amendment, which excluded race but retained gender as criteria for suffrage, was still fresh in the memories of activists who, earlier allied in their opposition to slavery, had divided themselves into camps supporting black male or white female suffrage. Harper supported suffrage for all women, not just white women, as was sometimes proposed. A decade later, Harper linked the question of woman suffrage to temperance, or the avoidance of alcohol; this coincided with her involvement with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Harper’s activist and writing career was truly remarkable for its length and consistency, as well as for its depth and breadth. Recently, she has begun to be recognized as, in the words of Frances Smith Foster, not only ”the most popular African-American writer of the nineteenth century, but also one of the most important women in United States history.”
Works in Critical Context
Harper was among the most popular black writers of her day, and her work was read in abolitionist papers and other publications devoted to improving social justice for African Americans in the nineteenth century. Her work was highly regarded for its criticism of racial inequality and patriarchy, as well as for the hope Harper conveyed in her rhetorical style.
Harper sparked renewed interest among twentieth-century scholars, who recognized her as a figure of more historic than artistic importance. Described variously as an early feminist, one of the first African American protest poets, and—in the words of Patricia Liggins Hill—”a major healer and race-builder of nineteenth-century America,” Harper nonetheless made aesthetic contributions of pioneer significance.
Moses: A Story of the Nile
Moses: A Story of the Nile is considered, by some critics, to be Harper’s best poetic work. For example, when discussing the poem’s artistic merits, Joan R. Sherman writes, ”Mrs. Harper maintains the pace of her long narrative and its tone of reverent admiration with scarcely a pause for moralizing. Moses is Mrs. Harper’s most original poem and one of considerable power.” Indeed, some scholars judge Moses: A Story of the Nile to be exceptional in its quality when compared to the rest of Harper’s work. Patricia Hill writes, ”With the exception of Moses: A Story of the Nile.. .and Sketches of Southern Life…, Harper’s poetry varies little in form, language, and poetic technique.” Similarly, Maryemma Graham notes that ”Watkins’s remarkable power and dramatic appeal as a poet come from her strong, rhetorical, oral style.”
- Boyd, Melba Joyce. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
- Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
- Foster, Frances Smith, ed. A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Reader. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.
- Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Chicago: Johnson, 1970.
- Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Washington, Mary Helen. Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960. New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1988.
- Ammons, Elizabeth. ”Legacy Profile: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).” LEGACY2 (Fall 1985): 61-66.
- Bacon, Margaret Hope. ”’One Great Bundle of Humanity’: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 113 (January 1989): 21-23.
- Ernest, John. ”From Mysteries to Histories: Cultural Pedagogy in Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy.” American Literature 64 (September 1992): 497-518.
- Love, Alfred. ”Memorial Tribute to Mrs. Frances E. W. Harper.” The Peacemaker 30 (1911): 118-119.
- McDowell, Deborah E. ”’The Changing Same’: Generational Connections and Black Women Novelists.” New Literary History 18 (Winter 1987): 281-302.
- Young, Elizabeth. ”Warring Fictions: Iola Leroy and the Color of Gender.” American Literature 64 (June 1992).
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