Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

William Still, in his introduction to the first edition of Iola Leroy, admitted his initial concern that Harper would ruin her good reputation by writing on the subject of slavery, but he asserted that after reading the manuscript his fears were allayed. Iola Leroy, Harper’s first and only novel, was written when she was sixty-seven and had already enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet, essayist, and lecturer. Her decision to write a novel was based on her prevailing drive to do all she could in lasting service for her race. Originally conceived as a book to be used in black southern Sunday schools, the novel has much broader appeal as an extension of Harper’s rhetorical career. She spent much of her early life giving lectures on many of the same issues raised in the novel: abolition, temperance, education, women’s rights, and general racial uplift. Iola Leroy is important as one of the earliest attempts in African American literature to address this combination of issues in fictional form. One might claim that the novel is essentially a lecture dressed in a thin fictional garment. Harper’s purpose never changed, whether she was writing poetry, delivering speeches, or producing fiction. With such a strong didactic agenda, it should surprise no one that Iola Leroy’s primary purpose in the context of Harper’s life and the prevailing social exigencies was, in Harper’s own words, to “awaken in the hearts of our countrymen a stronger sense of justice and a more Christlike humanity in behalf of those whom the fortunes of war threw, homeless, ignorant and poor, upon the threshold of a new era.”