Frank J. Webb 1828?-1894?
Webb was a nineteenth-century African-American novelist whose literary reputation rests on his single novel, The Garies and Their Friends (1857). The second earliest novel to be written by an African American, Webb's work traces the lives and misfortunes of two middle-class black families—one of mixed and the other of pure ethnicity—in antebellum Philadelphia. Although most critics have recognized that The Garies and Their Friends is a largely mediocre example of the popular nineteenth-century melodramatic novel, they have also pointed out that the work is the first to address a number of key themes and issues that would occupy the black literature movement in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. These “firsts” include the sober depiction of racism and segregation in the free North; a graphic account of a racially charged mob riot; the benign portrayal of blacks as middle-class social climbers; and an implicit condemnation of mulattos who cross the color barrier.
Little is known about Webb's life and career. Biographical details are scant and often contradictory given that a number of Frank Webbs flourished at the same time as the author. Nevertheless, literary historians have been able to reconstruct a basic—albeit sometimes hypothetical—outline of Webb's life though his works, contemporary accounts, and government statistical records. Scholars generally believe that Webb was born in Philadelphia in 1828. This date is based on the corroboration of census data and on the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe describes Webb as “a colored young man, born and reared in the city of Philadelphia” in her preface to his 1857 novel. Although nothing is known about his family or formal education, one census record indicates that he worked as a “designer,” leading historians to speculate that he was either a printer or a tailor. More details become known in 1845, when Webb married a mulatto named Mary. In succeeding years, Mary Webb achieved minor fame for her public dramatic readings of Shakespeare and other major poets. Indeed, Stowe adapted a portion of Uncle Tom's Cabin for her use in public readings. Mary made her debut as a dramatic reader in 1855, probably to support her family, given that Webb's business had failed the previous year. In 1856, the Webbs traveled to London where Mary had been engaged to perform her dramatic readings. While there, they became acquainted with members of some of the highest social circles in England. Scholars have speculated that Webb utilized this period of unemployment to write his novel. Indeed, The Garies and Their Friends was first published in London by G. Routledge & Co. Around this time, Mary contracted consumption and, after a brief stay in the south of France, the Webbs moved to Jamaica, perhaps assuming that the warmer climate would alleviate Mary's suffering. Once the Webbs settled in Jamaica in 1858, he secured employment as a postmaster in Kingston. Later that year, Mary died.
Contemporary records indicate that Webb remained in Jamaica for several years after Mary's death. During this time, he married a Jamaican native named Mary Rodgers and started a second family. Webb departed from Jamaica in 1869, leaving his family behind while he attempted to reestablish himself in the United States. In the early 1870s, while residing in Washington, D.C., he worked briefly for the Freedman's Bureau before becoming affiliated with The New Era. Webb serialized two novellas—Two Wolves and a Lamb and Marvin Hayle—in the black national periodical in 1870. By 1872 Webb had left Washington and settled in Galveston, Texas. Scholars have been puzzled about why the author made such a drastic move after rekindling his writing career for The New Era. This puzzle is complicated by the fact that the details about Webb's life again become murky after his move to Texas. Records indicate that he may have served as the editor of a short-lived radical newspaper before gaining more secure employment in the Galveston post office. Unverified contemporary accounts further suggest that Webb became a teacher and perhaps even a principal after 1880. These accounts also posit that Webb died in Galveston in 1894.
Although it was written at a time when there was intense international scrutiny on the institution of slavery in the American South, The Garies and Their Friends does not explicitly deal with this controversial issue; rather, the novel focuses on the lives of free blacks in the North who try to improve their social and economic standing in the face of malevolent, omnipresent racism. Despite the gravity of his subject matter, Webb wrote The Garies and Their Friends in the popular literary tradition of the sentimental novel. This genre features such elements as highly melodramatic episodes, one-dimensional characters, and far-fetched coincidences that bind the narrative together. Many critics have pointed out that the limitations of this literary device have obscured the profundity of Webb's literary style and his treatment of complex themes. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that Webb's writing is stylistically similar to Charles Dickens's in its compelling depiction of the urban milieu and the conditions of the working class. Further, some have compared Webb to Horatio Alger for his shrewd insights into the phenomenon of social climbing through the development of astute business skills. Still others have suggested that Webb's perceptive portrayal of children in his novel anticipates Mark Twain's creation of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Webb's pioneering treatment of significant ethnic themes also establishes The Garies and Their Friends as perhaps the earliest foray into social realism in the African-American literary tradition. The work is an exposé on the hypocrisy of white values in the North where the fervent advocacy of the abolition of slavery is undermined by virulent bigotry and segregation in their own cities. The novel is also a realistic examination of the complex psychology of blacks who try to assimilate white values and culture through social integration versus those who assimilate through miscegenation and crossing the color barrier by “passing as white.” The two prominent families in Webb's novel—the Garies and the Ellises—represent the dichotomy of this psychology. Despite enduring hardship, the ethnically pure Ellises achieve social status and economic prosperity while preserving and cherishing their black ethnicity and culture. By contrast, the racially mixed Garies who attempt to assimilate ethnically with the white majority suffer brutally at the hands of a white mob and become destitute victims of racism from all of the social classes.
Despite Webb's pioneering treatment of racism and black social mobility in The Garies and Their Friends, the novel has remained in obscurity—even in the field of African-American literature. Critics have asserted that while the novel's artificial romantic convention is partly to blame for its neglect, they have also suggested that Webb's discussion of racism was perhaps too blunt for nineteenth-century audiences. Indeed, the work did not begin to receive serious critical attention until it was published as a reprint in 1969. In his introduction to that edition, Arthur P. Davis was the first modern critic to identify The Garies and Their Friends as a ground-breaking examination of the black experience in the antebellum northern United States. Commenting on the novel's surprisingly ambivalent attitude toward slavery, Davis has suggested that Webb might have intended the work to be a “goodwill” book which promises social and economic progress for blacks who demonstrate pride and perseverance in the face of white oppression. R. F. Bogardus has analyzed the implications of this struggle in depth, concluding that Webb pioneered the device of black social realism in his novel. According to Bogardus, Webb's elucidation of such key themes as ethnic pride, ubiquitous racism, miscegenation, and black militancy anticipates many of the crucial issues which will receive fuller analysis in African-American works of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Robert S. Levine has been more skeptical of Webb's influence, arguing that the author presents a questionable moral vision by pragmatically advocating the assimilation of white values and mores so that blacks can attain the American dream. In two studies published in 1997 and 1999, Robert Reid-Pharr has posited that Webb elucidated the concept of “black domesticity” in The Garies and Their Friends, which represents “an ideological orientation that emphasizes the family and family life as the wellspring of black economic, political, and social development.” According to the critic, Webb maintains that black identity, security, and social improvement all depend on close-knit familial and community relations; by contrast, interracialism and miscegenation are acts which corrupt and weaken this social bond. Reid-Pharr has concluded that Webb ultimately challenges the ideological conception that miscegenation is a viable avenue for racial assimilation and modernization in American society. In addition, Anna Engle has analyzed the connection between ethnic and class status in The Garies and Their Friends, noting how Irish immigrants are subjected to many of the same racial prejudice as blacks. Ultimately, Engle has asserted, Webb registers optimism for both ethnic groups in his portrayal of the working-class Irish and the middle-class blacks as active participants in social mobility.