Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 1825–1911
(Born Frances Ellen Watkins; also wrote as Effie Afton) American poet, novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
Harper, a celebrated orator and social activist, was one of the most popular black poets of the nineteenth century. Her works are considered transitional. While she wrote against slavery, she also broke away from the purely propagandistic mode of the anti-slavery poet, becoming one of the first African American writers to focus on national and universal issues. Today, in the canon of American literature, she is considered an important abolitionist poet whose works possess greater historic than artistic significance.
Born of a free mother in the slave state of Maryland, Harper was raised by an aunt and uncle after her mother's early death and educated at her uncle's school for free blacks. Her first job at age thirteen was caring for the children of a bookseller; there she began composing poems and reading the popular literature of the period. Intent on living in a free state, Harper moved to Ohio where she worked as a sewing teacher. A subsequent move to Little York, Pennsylvania to teach elementary school acquainted her with the Underground Railroad—a loosely organized network of abolitionists who helped fugitive slaves to escape north—and she quickly aligned herself with the anti-slavery movement. Her first abolitionist speech was a marked success. Preaching social and political reform and moral betterment, Harper spent the next several years lecturing against slavery and offering readings from her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854). She supported the rebellion of John Brown and, as he awaited execution, Harper lived with his wife to lend moral support. Married to a farmer when she was thirty-five, Harper retired from public life and bore a child. Her husband died four years later, and she returned to lecturing. With the conclusion of the Civil War and the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, her speeches shifted to Reconstruction themes stressing the divisive effects of racism as well as the need for temperance, domestic morality, and education for black Americans. Ignoring the advice of friends, and despite failing health and dwindling financial resources, Harper continued to speak before black and racially mixed audiences, often without a fee, throughout the still-dangerous South. Until the end of her career she remained active in such religious and social organizations as the Women's
Christian Temperance Union and the American Woman Suffrage Association. She died at age eightyfive in Philadelphia.
Harper's first publication, Forest Leaves (c. 1845), a collection of poetry and prose, has not been preserved. Her next book of poetry, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects was her most popular book, selling several thousand copies in at least twenty editions. Containing her mostacclaimed abolitionist poem, "Bury Me in a Free Land," it firmly established Harper's literary reputation. Imitative of the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, the poems in the volume are primarily anti-slavery narratives. Moses: A Story of the Nile (1869) and Sketches of Southern Life (1872) are considered Harper's best works, though they were not as well known as Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. Published almost fifteen years after her first collection, Moses chronicles the Hebrew patriarch's life, stressing the personal sacrifices he made in order to free the Israelites. Most critics consider this a non-racial work, but the poem's emphasis on leadership and self-sacrifice is consistent with Harper's often-stated hopes for black leadership and unity. Sketches of Southern Life, a collection of poems, 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. These narratives are written in African-American vernacular speech.
During her career, Harper was extremely popular with both black and white audiences. Most critics believe that her popularity as an orator was largely responsible for the favorable reception of her poetry. As for her aesthetic abilities, the vernacular speech of the narrators in Sketches of Southern Life has been praised by some critics who recognize it as a forerunner of the dialect verse used by James Edwin Campbell, Daniel Webster Davis, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Others, including Jean Wagner, argue that Harper's "language and humor are far from being authentically of the people." Though critics do not agree on Harper's artistic importance, twentieth-century literary scholars generally recognize her importance as an historic figure in African-American poetry. She has been 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."
*† Forest Leaves (poetry and prose) c. 1845
* Eventide [under pseudonym Effie Afton] (poetry and prose) 1854
* Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (poetry and essays) 1854
Moses: A Story of the Nile 1869
Sketches of Southern Life 1872
‡ Atlanta Offering: Poems 1895
Idylls of the Bible 1901
The Poems of Frances E. W. Harper 1970
Complete Poems 1988
Other Major Works
*"The Two Offers" (short story) 1859
"The Colored Woman of America" (essay) 1878
lola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (novel) 1892
Minnie's Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper (novels) 1994
*Works before 1860 were published under Harper's maiden name, Frances Ellen Watkins.
†There are no extant copies of Harper's first collection Forest Leaves, also referred to as Autumn Leaves.
‡Contains The Sparrow's Fall and Other Poems and The Martyr of Alabama and Other Poems.
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SOURCE: Preface to Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, by Frances Ellen Watkins, Merrihew & Thompson, 1857, pp. 3-4.
[Garrison, an American abolitionist and civil libertarian, founded the antislavery journal Liberator and was cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In the following excerpt from his preface to the first edition of Harper's Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, originally published in 1854, he implies that Harper's verse should not be judged by overly strict standards but rather as the work of a deserving apprentice poet. While Garrison believes that Harper demonstrates talent, he also suggests that she needs encouragement and cultivation.]
There are half a million free colored persons in our country. These are not admitted to equal rights and privileges with the whites. As a body, their means of education are extremely limited; they are oppressed on every hand; they are confined to the performance of the most menial acts; consequently, it is not surprising that their intellectual, moral and social advancement is not more rapid. Nay, it is surprising, in view of the injustice meted out to them, that they have done so well. Many bright examples of intelligence, talent, genius and piety might be cited among their ranks, and these are constantly multiplying.
Every indication of ability, on the part of any of their number, is deserving of special...
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SOURCE: "Literature, 1895-1890," in The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937, pp. 100-23.
[Brawley is considered one of the most influential critics of Harlem Renaissance literature. An educator, historian, and clergyman, Brawley's literary contributions are largely concerned with black writers and artists, and with black history. In the following excerpt, Brawley briefly describes and compliments Harper's books of poetry.]
Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911) was distinctly a minor poet, though sometimes her feeling flashed out in felicitous lines. To account for her reputation one must recall that she was more than a writer. For six years before the Civil War she was an anti-slavery agent in the East, and for more than three decades thereafter a lecturer in the South on temperance and home-building. Her prime concern was with moral and social reform.
Frances Ellen Watkins was born of free parents in Baltimore. When she was three years old her mother died, and at thirteen she had to earn her own living. When grown to womanhood she served for three years as a teacher in Ohio, but an incident of the year 1853 led her to devote herself to effort for freedom. Maryland passed an act forbidding free Negroes from the North to come to the state on penalty of being imprisoned and sold into slavery. A...
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SOURCE: "Let Freedom Ring," in To Make a Poet Black, McGrath Publishing Company, 1968, pp. 19-48.
[In To Make a Poet Black Redding provides a scholarly appraisal of black poetry, including a historical overview as well as biographical information about individual poets. In the following excerpt from that book, originally published in 1939, Redding discusses Harper's attempts to broaden the scope of African-American verse in her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects and other collections.]
In 1854, while Douglass was climbing in importance as the spokesman and ideal of the Negro race, there appeared in Philadelphia a thin volume called Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, by Frances Ellen Watkins. The title is significant, for it indicates a different trend in the creative urge of the Negro. Except for Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, Negro writers up to this time were interested mainly in the one theme of slavery and in the one purpose of bringing about freedom. The treatment of their material was doctrinal, definitely conditioned to the ends of propaganda. A willful (and perhaps necessary) monopticism had blinded them to other treatment and to the possibilities in other subjects. It remained for Miss Watkins, with the implications in the title of her volume, to attempt a redirection.
The writers did not immediately follow the lead. William Wells Brown, for an instance,...
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SOURCE: "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1824-1911" in Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1974, pp. 62-74.
[In the following essay, Sherman explains that while the poems in Harper's early collections may seem maudlin to modern readers, Harper should nonetheless be remembered as a black poet who broke away from purely racial protest themes to treat other national issues of significance.]
In an 1859 essay, "Our Greatest Want," Miss Watkins declared that neither gold, intelligence, nor talent were the most pressing needs of her people; rather, "We want more soul, a higher cultivation of all spiritual faculties. We need more unselfishness, earnestness and integrity…. We need men and women whose hearts are the homes of a high and lofty enthusiasm, and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent and money on the altar of universal freedom." No sounder description of the virtues Miss Watkins herself possessed was ever written, although journalists from Maine to Alabama, fellow abolitionists, and contemporary historians acclaimed her unsparing dedication to humanity and honored her as the equal of Bishop Daniel Payne and Frederick Douglass in her contributions to race advancement.
Frances Ellen Watkins was born in Baltimore in 1824, the only child of free parents. When her mother died in 1828...
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SOURCE: "Doers of the Word, The Reconstruction Poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper," in Written By Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892, Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 131-53.
[Foster is a noted literary historian in the area of African-American literature. She is the author of Witnessing Slavery: The Development of the Antebellum Slave Narrative; the editor of A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Reader and Minnie's Sacrifice; Sowing and Reaping; Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels by Frances E. W. Harper; and the coeditor of The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature. In the following excerpt, Foster describes the themes and poetic techniques that Harper used in the poetry she wrote during the Reconstruction Era. Foster points out the degree to which Harper makes statements applicable to contemporaneous issues of race and sex, incorporates her own experiences into her poetry, and adheres to the literary aesthetics of her contemporaries.]
For African American writers the "quest for a usable past" had a special urgency. They knew that by confronting that past and its literary stereotypes, they could affect their present condition and help shape the American future. African American writers took it as their social responsibility as well as their literary right to revise history, report the present, and envision a...
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SOURCE: "'Neath Sheltering Vines and Stately Palms: The Radical Vision of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper" and "The Dialectics of Dialect Poetry: Frances Harper's Sketches of Southern Life," in Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E. W. Harper, 1825-1911, Wayne State University Press, 1994, pp. 56-78, 147-166.
[Boyd is a poet, a professor, and a scholar of African-American studies. Her book, Discarded Legacy, is a historical study of Harper's life and works. In the following excerpt from this work, Boyd offers a thematic and stylistic survey of Harper's verse in Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects and Sketches of Southern Life.]
"Let bronze be brought to Egypt, let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God."
One month after Frances Harper delivered her first lecture on behalf of the antislavery cause, her second book of poetry and essays, Poems and Miscellaneous Subjects, was published by J. B. Yerrinton & Son in Boston. In 1857, the second edition was published by Merrihew & Thompson in Philadelphia with an introduction by William Lloyd Garrison. Many of these poems appeared in her first book, Forest Leaves, as well as in abolitionist periodicals. She had already acquired some literary notice, but this second book...
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SOURCE: '"Whatever Concerns Them, as a Race, Concerns Me': The Oratorical Careers of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Sarah Parker Remond," in "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880), Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 119-45.
[In the following excerpt, Peterson analyzes the cultural contexts surrounding Harper's poetry, seeing her writing as an "experimental activity" that appropriated the nineteenth-century discourse of sentimentality and broke down social distinctions between public and private spheres.]
Poetry—in both its recited and printed forms—was … an experimental activity for Watkins Harper, serving as a structural frame through which she could fashion herself in the public role of poet-preacher in order to articulate her vision of nineteenth-century America. In accordance with Unitarian literary theory, in which the British novelist Maria Edgeworth and poet Felicia Hemans were put forth as models of good taste, Watkins Harper conceived of poetry as moral and didactic preaching in which originality was less important than the ability to create character in the reader. In particular, sentimentality became a mode whose purpose was not to unleash an excess of emotion in the reader but rather to channel feelings toward benevolent and moral ends, develop Christian character, and forge social bonds that would commit the individual reader to work...
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Miller, Ruth, and Peter J. Katopes. "Modern Beginnings." In Black American Writers: Bibliographic Essays I: The Beginnings Through the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes, pp. 133-60. New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1978.
Descriptive bibliography of Harper's works and relevant secondary sources.
Whiteman, Maxwell. Introduction to Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, by Frances Ellen Watkins. 1857. Reprint. Philadelphia: Historic Publications, 1969, 48 p.
Bibliography of works and principal sources of biographical and bibliographic information.
Yellin, Jean Fagan, and Cynthia D. Bond. "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper." In The Pen Is Ours: A Listing of Writings by and about African-American Women before 1910 with Secondary Bibliography to the Present, pp. 80-101. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Lists all of Harper's works including magazine and anthology listings for publication of individual poems and letters. Also includes over one hundred entries of writings about her.
Bacon, Margaret Hope. '"One Great Bundle of Humanity': Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography CXIII, No. 1...
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