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20 - Frances Harper and the Poetry of Reconstruction

from PART III - 1865–1900, EXPERIMENT AND EXPANSION

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2017

Monique-Adelle Callahan
Affiliation:
Emmanuel College
Jennifer Putzi
Affiliation:
College of William and Mary, Virginia
Alexandra Socarides
Affiliation:
University of Missouri, Columbia
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Summary

In his seminal work The Underground Railroad (1871), abolitionist William Still identified Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as the “leading colored poet in the United States.” Indeed, Harper was a prominent poet and orator, an avatar of literary activism whose widespread popularity and fierce commitment to postbellum social reform make her a unique figure in American literary history. In this essay, I examine a specific phase of Harper's poetics, focusing on the era known as Reconstruction beginning with the end of the Civil War and ending in 1877. As the country recovered from the trauma of civil war, the “problem” of slavery and then of emancipated blacks became as much a legal and political dilemma as an existential one. The legal question of black citizenship carried with it the existential question of black humanity. These questions complicated the pursuit of a new definition of American citizenship. For blacks, creative, articulate literary endeavor was a way of contending for recognition as legitimate constituents of a changing American body politic. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich remind us how the beginnings of American consciousness asserted themselves at the intersection of race and place: the “New World” became “truly new only when the European Columbiad was redefined by the African diaspora, when the European inventions of America encountered the inventions of America that were manufactured by the involuntary African pioneers.” This legacy of invention and manufacturing came to characterize African American participation in nation-building.

Scholars have examined Harper's work in light of Romantic sentimentalism, the post-abolition literature of racial uplift, and women's suffrage. My critique builds on these approaches and recasts Harper's work as pioneering in its poetic treatment of a national–transnational dialectic in American history. More specifically, I examine this dialectic as it plays out in African American poetry, a poetic corpus that I believe stands at the nexus of American national and global discourse. I argue here that Harper's Reconstruction poetry reflects an American consciousness deriving from a radical tension between a legacy of slavery that informs black identities and an evolving national ethos in dialogue with a global enterprise. In its expression of a national consciousness that is both transatlantic and transhemispheric in scope, Harper's poetry exemplifies a kind of literary transnationalism.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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