F.E.W. Harper: the case of a forgotten black woman writer

Another unusual thing about F.E.W. Harper is that there are a lot of pictures of her. She’s younger in this one, about in her 40’s.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the greatest black woman writer was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Yes, exactly.  Who?  And that’s the shame of it.  Anything can make such a seismic shift in over 100 years.  Or more.

Harper was a writer who wrote both prose and poetry in the latter half of the nineteenth century. She is credited with being the first African American (man or woman) to write a short story called “Two Offers.” If you have a chance to read it, it still holds up—the basic premise is that women shouldn’t marry for anyone old reason.  Keep in mind, she was writing this in 1856.

She was long credited with being the first African American woman to write a novel, Iola Leroy in 1892.  Scholarship showed someone else did it in 1859.  Still, even when that discovery occurred, scholars discovered Harper bested her own novel writing record when in the 1990’s it was discovered that she had published three novels in serialized form in the 1870’s in The Christian Recorder, a newspaper widely circulated in the A.M.E. membership.  Serialization was the same way Charles Dickens published his novels, and yet, no one forgot him.

This woman, born to free black parents in Baltimore could have easily lived her writing life without worrying about anyone or anything else. She did marry and have a daughter. This personal hallmark, coupled with her incredible output of multiple volumes of poetry, serialized novels, essays, short stories, and the success of Iola Leroy, was enough to keep any woman writer busy. But Harper also had a very busy lecturing career.  She managed in her public persona, to win friends and influence by lecturing against slavery.  After the Civil War, she continued to lecture…sometimes twice a day, on lecture for temperance, and the education and welfare of the freed slaves.  Not everyone was receptive to hearing a black woman speak in public in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but most who heard her heard her agree—Harper had a magic touch.

So why don’t we know her now?  Literary fashion changed in the United States after Harper’s death in 1911.  There’s also the “problem” that she was equally gifted in two different genres of writing.  Literary circles tend to prefer writers write one thing and stick with it.  Scholars question anyone who can do both—except for Poe.  He did both and didn’t get a hard time and we still know him.  Could it be that we have forgotten Harper and her achievements for other reasons?  Scholar Frances Smith Foster thinks so and says so in her introduction of the Harper compendium A Brighter Coming Day. “Harper is but one of many writers, particularly women, whose literary reputations have suffered because of this shift in values, or perhaps more accurately, the ascendancy of a literary elite in partnership with the publishing industry.”

Such an amazing woman would be a favorite poet of an educated woman like Amanda Smithson.  So when Harper comes to visit Milford College in The Representative’s Revolt, it’s very likely that these two women will find a great deal to bond over—including their daughters who are of similar age.  I hope you look forward to their meeting on the page as much as I do.