Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."