The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké Essay - Critical Context

Charlotte L.Forten Grimké

Critical Context

A 1985 American Playhouse production, “Charlotte Forten’s Mission: Experiment in Freedom,” helped revive interest in Forten’s South Carolina experience. Until the publication of the complete The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké in 1988, Grimké was most widely known through the abbreviated diary edited by Ray Allen Billington, which emphasized her relationship to the abolitionist movement and her work with the Port Royal Experiment. Her journals were widely considered to be primarily of historical interest, providing one young woman’s account of important people and events before and during the Civil War.

The publication in 1988 of both an essay by Joanne Braxton, “Charlotte Forten Grimké and the Search for a Public Voice,” and the complete journals helped to change that perception. Braxton argues that in the complete journals, a reader can see a young African American female writer who is trying to find literary models that will be useful to her as well as trying to make established European-American models meaningful to her own life and writing.

In her own lifetime, Grimké received praise for her literary talents, most notably from William Wells Brown, the former slave and noted abolitionist, and John Greenleaf Whittier, both personal friends. The judgment of history on her literary production other than her journals has been rather cool. Her journals stand as her most significant literary work by far. As Ray Allen Billington said in his introduction to her journals, Grimké’s “bequest to humanity was a journal which could reveal to a later generation her undying belief in human decency and equality.”