Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Criticism - Essay

William Lloyd Garrison (essay date 1854)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

J. Saunders Redding (essay date 1939)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3540 words.)

Frances Smith Foster (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 9903 words.)

Melba Joyce Boyd (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.]


(The entire section is 7787 words.)

Caria L. Peterson (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3641 words.)