An argument for a major remapping of the early African American literary landscape.
In January of 1861, on the eve of both the Civil War and the rebirth of the African Methodist Episcopal Church's Christian Recorder, John Mifflin Brown wrote to the paper praising its editor Elisha Weaver: "It takes our Western boys to lead off. I am proud of your paper."
Weaver's story, though, like many of the contributions of early black literature outside of the urban Northeast, has almost vanished. Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth- Century African American Literature recovers the work of early African American authors and editors such as Weaver who have been left off maps drawn by historians and literary critics. Individual chapters restore to consideration black literary locations in antebellum St. Louis, antebellum Indiana, Reconstruction-era San Francisco, and several sites tied to the Philadelphia-based Recorder during and after the Civil War.
In conversation with both archival sources and contemporary scholarship, Unexpected Places calls for a large-scale rethinking of the nineteenth-century African American literary landscape. In addition to revisiting such better-known writers as William Wells Brown, Maria Stewart, and Hannah Crafts, Unexpected Places offers the first critical considerations of important figures including William Jay Greenly, Jennie Carter, Polly Wash, and Lizzie Hart. The book's discussion of physical locations leads naturally to careful study of how region is tied to genre, authorship, publication circumstances, the black press, domestic and nascent black nationalist ideologies, and black mobility in the nineteenth century.
Eric Gardner —
Eric Gardner is professor and chair of the English department at Saginaw Valley State University. He is the editor of Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West (University Press of Mississippi).
Gardner, Eric. Unexpected places: relocating nineteenth-century African American literature. University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 258p bibl index afp; ISBN 9781604732832. Outstanding Title! Reviewed in 2010apr CHOICE.
In this provocative and important study, Gardner (Saginaw Valley State Univ.) revises much of what the academy has understood about African American literature. He argues that scholars have defined 19th-century African American writing as "southern stories told in bound books that were written by blacks in the urban Northeast and published in one of the handful of urban Northeast centers of activism like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston." This, the author contends, has erased such black writings as Western narratives, free southern authors, and the general role of newspaper publishing. Unexpected Places asks readers to reconsider the scope and variety of 19th-century black writing by refocusing interest in periodical publications, which often were the only literary outlet non-eastern writers had, especially since they were composing works other than slaves' narratives. Gardner's arrangement is geographic: chapters treat such locations as St. Louis, Indiana, and northern California, sustaining the proposition that "affinities of place may well tell [the reader] much about questions of influence, composition, content, publication, and reception." The chapter on freedom lawsuits in St. Louis is particularly compelling for the way it expands knowledge of black lives and pursuits of freedom.
Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. -- D. J. Rosenthal, John Carroll University