- Toward a History of Access:The Case of Mary Church Terrell
In February of 1924, Mary Church Terrell wrote to author Agnes Repplier. "Your essay on the Happiness of Writing an Autobiography is most interesting, instructive, and entertaining," Terrell said. "I have enjoyed every syllable of it and have read it twice." Terrell's motive in writing Repplier was twofold: in addition to praising her work, she also wished to elicit her assistance. "[M]y friends have been urging me for a long time to write an autobiography," she told Repplier. "I am wondering whether you will have the time or the inclination to advise me how to write [it]." Taken on its own, Terrell's request is straightforward: she wished to glean from another, experienced writer tips toward composing her own memoir. However, Terrell was also signaling the complexity of her literary positioning. "I have been unable to place my article[s] in American magazines," she admitted to Repplier, whose essays appeared in them frequently, "because I have written on various phases of the Race Problem. I did succeed in placing my article on Lynching from a Negro's point of view in the North American Review for June, 1904," Terrell wrote, pointing to a publishing achievement that had occurred some two decades in the past. However, the bulk of her experience in trying to get her writing published in the US was disappointing. She lamented that the articles in which she most firmly believed, with titles such as "The Convict Lease System in the United States" and "A Plea for the White South by a Colored Woman" were "rejected by every magazine in this country," even those "which print matter like that." Her experience trying to publish [End Page 381] short stories and other works of fiction was even more discouraging. Even when these texts addressed the so-called "Race Problem" only indirectly, they were rejected. Terrell believed that the story of what she termed in her letter to Repplier her own "unusual experience in this country" was worth recording.1 Yet how could this be done in a manner that would successfully see its way into print?
Born in 1863, Terrell was 61 years of age when she initially contacted Repplier; her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, would not be published for another 16 years; in the end she turned to a vanity press, Ransdell Company of Washington, DC, after her manuscript was rejected by one publisher after another.2 It is in fact not Terrell's experience writing or publishing the autobiography that interests me here, but the experiences that motivated her to contact Repplier in 1924, admit her frustration, and ask for advice on how to write her autobiography. What were the literary conditions that led to her frustrations and necessitated her query? To what must we credit Terrell's lack of confidence in her ability to successfully record her own story? Simply put: What happened between the 1904 publication of "Lynching from a Negro Point of View" and her frustrated appeal to Repplier in 1924? And how can the story of this seemingly marginal aspiring writer help us to better understand the history of print culture in African-American contexts?
Historically, the case of Terrell and others like her has remained invisible to literary critics and historians. Her work is not "great," nor was it popular, and as such it fits in neither of the two primary (if vague) categories we have most often used to identify literature and comprehend literary history. It is, in fact, not even, for the most part, published, a condition which relegates Terrell, despite her prolific authorship of short stories and other fictional literature, into a realm we seldom think about, much less study: that of literary failure. It is this "failed" authorship and the unpublished work by which it is represented on which I wish to focus here, for I argue that in this story of literary failure and the deep disappointment that accompanied it is a window on literary history and print culture that we have too long overlooked. Terrell was something of a pack rat, and her manuscript collection at...