Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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."

Principal Works


*† 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

Poems 1871

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.


William Lloyd Garrison (essay date 1854)

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 encouragement. Whatever is attempted in poetry or prose, in art or science, in professional or mechanical life, should be viewed with a friendly eye, and criticised in a lenient spirit. To measure them by the same standard as we measure the productions of the favored white inhabitants of the land would be manifestly unjust. The varying circumstances and conditions of life are to be taken strictly into account.

Hence, in reviewing the following [Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects], the critic will remember that they are written by one young in years, and identified in complexion and destiny with a depressed and outcast race, and who has had to contend with a thousand disadvantages from earliest life. They certainly are very creditable to her, both in a literary and moral point of view, and indicate the possession of a talent which, if carefully cultivated and properly encouraged, cannot fail to secure for herself a poetic reputation, and to deepen the interest already so extensively felt in the liberation and enfranchisement of the entire colored race.

Benjamin Brawley (essay date 1937)

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...

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J. Saunders Redding (essay date 1939)

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...

(The entire section is 1439 words.)

Joan R. Sherman (essay date 1974)

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...

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Frances Smith Foster (essay date 1993)

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,...

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Melba Joyce Boyd (essay date 1994)

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.]


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Caria L. Peterson (essay date 1995)

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...

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Further Reading


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.


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