- “Reading Aright”: White Slavery, Black Referents, and The Strategy of Histotextuality in Iola Leroy 1
Until fairly recently, time had not been kind to Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892). Though it was long considered the “first” novel written by an African-American woman, more often than not it was noted for only that. Countless critics of various methodological and ideological persuasions derided the novel for its seeming historical amnesia, myopia, and racial and sexual restraint. Almost all agreed on at least one thing: they considered Iola Leroy a failure both aesthetically and politically.
Frances Smith Foster’s rediscovery of Frances Harper’s first three novels 2 and the convergence of the rapidly growing fields of African-American women’s writing, cultural studies and women’s history, has facilitated a growing reconsideration of Iola Leroy. It began to garner more serious attention in the mid-1980s just about the time its status as “first” was displaced by Emma Dunham Kelley’s novel Megda (1891) and then by the rediscovery of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859). As the field of Black women’s literature consolidated, and as work on other early women writers’ strategies emerged concurrently, Iola Leroy was reprinted in 1987 for only the second time in ninety-two years and was placed in a literary and historical context that provided readers better access to Harper’s textual workings. 3 Still, Harper’s generic choices have been viewed as too sentimental, too imitative, while she continues to be chided, as a Black writer, for not being sufficiently “authentic.” Iola Leroy, supposedly, is disconnected from the “real” concerns of “real” African Americans at the turn of the century. While Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition (1901) has been seen as both artful and oppositional in large part because his mimetic, historical and intertextual referents—the Wilmington race riots, the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, and Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson—are meant to be easily recognizable to a large group of readers, Iola Leroy has been dismissed for describing “no significant orbit.” 4 Even Deborah McDowell, who has skillfully illuminated the workings of other neglected novels, suggests that the characterizations [End Page 327] in Iola Leroy are lacking in “honesty and imagination” and that the novel is directed toward a readership “outside the black cultural community.” 5 Yet despite some critics’ continuing cavils, it has become increasingly clear that if readers heed both John Reilly’s familiar cautionary note not to conflate the “work of literature” with the “reality either of the exterior world or of the author—for to do so is to deny the text its epistemological status, its special function as an instrument of literary cognition,” 6 —and if they attend to the text’s socio-ideologic contexts and various social registers, we can better recognize Iola Leroy’s ignored dialogics. The text is compellingly artful in communicating differently to sets of readers who do not always enjoy shared fields of cultural knowledge or levels of literary sophistication. To some, Harper’s generic choices occlude her use of historical tropes that, I will argue, were crystal clear to a set of her contemporaneous readers. If, as Reilly points out, “works of [African-American] literature are dissolved into their referents,” 7 then Harper’s most “literary” moments—the places in her text where she queries the connections between “historical” and representational epistemology—are lost unless we acknowledge the reading cartography she provides, and map her literary use of the referents at work in what she calls the “invented phraseology” of Iola Leroy. 8
In “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics and the Black Women’s Literary Tradition,” Mae Henderson proposes a theory of interpretation in which Black women “speak from a multiple and complex social, historical and cultural positionality, which, in effect, constitutes Black female subjectivity.” 9 This is a tradition—one that often is said to begin with Zora Neale Hurston and to reach forward to writers like Toni Morrison—with which Harper is seldom identified, in part because Black female subjectivity as we now understand it critically is rarely central to Harper’s project. Henderson’s “speaking in tongues” is a...