- Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth Century African American Literature by Eric Gardner,
In Unexpected Places, Eric Gardner sets out an excellent account of nineteenth-century black American literature ranging over approximately 1840–1890. The concept of place, and the concept of mobility by black Americans from place to place, bears significantly upon the matters Gardner discusses. For Gardner, mobility is related to two things associated with the very spirit of nineteenth-century America: “the need to move (freedom as geographical expansiveness) and the need to rise (freedom as social uplift)” (19). Furthermore, Gardner asserts that “The African American writers I locate in unexpected places did not only ‘get there’ by exercising mobility, but were continually concerned with the proper practices of mobility to ensure racial elevation, citizenship, and broader participation that would make their places seem more expected and more deeply tied to the rest of the black nation, as well as to the deeply contested broader multiracial nation” (20). When Unexpected Places was published in 2009, Gardner was a member of the faculty at Saginaw Valley Sate University, in Saginaw, Michigan, where he was a professor in, and the chairman of, the university’s Department of English.
As to the aims and overall objectives of the book, Gardner takes up the task “first and foremost [of] broadening the list of authors, texts, and places we consider in discussing nineteenth-century African American literature” (182). Here, Gardner accomplishes that task.
Gardner discusses the text of relatively unfamiliar black authors, including Jeannie Carter, Cyprian Clamorgan, Peter K. Cole, Sarah Louise Daffin, Thomas Detter, William J. Greenly, Jane Elizabeth Hart, John Berry Meachum, William Steward, Maria W. Stewart, Polly Wash, and Elisha Weaver. The only familiar figure among the twelve is Maria W. Stewart. In virtue of past publications concerning black/white relations between Americans, we are accustomed to reading about Maria W. Stewart as a black, female thinker who presented public speeches in Boston, Massachusetts, concerning social and political topics during the period of time 1831–1833. She was the first woman born in the United States, black or otherwise, to present such speeches to what were called, in her time, “promiscuous audiences” (audiences consisting of men as well as women). In Unexpected Places, we are introduced, or, alternatively, reintroduced, to Maria W. Stewart as the author not of some nonfictional text, but of some fictional writing. [End Page 469]
In chapter 1, Gardner discusses what he calls freedom suits, or, that is, lawsuits such that, through them, certain enslaved black people tried to become free. He discusses freedom suits as instruments of the law and as instruments through which the black people filing them tried, as he puts things, “to tell free stories, to publicly declare personhood, and to articulate blackness.” (43.) In turn, he relates freedom suits to the particular problems of Polly Wash, where Wash was a black woman in St. Louis, Missouri, who tried through a freedom suit to pass from being enslaved to being free, and she succeeded. In the end, Gardner poses, and expresses some uncertainty concerning, the philosophical problem of whether freedom suits should or should not be included under the heading of black American literature.
Some of the texts Gardner discusses have been recently recovered and/or discovered. For example, in chapter 2 Gardner discusses The Three Drunkards, written by William J. Greenly in 1858. Gardner asserts of Greenly’s text that “[it is] a newly discovered book of plays [which is] perhaps the first published by an African American” (16). In chapter 3, Gardner discusses Thomas Detter’s Nellie Brown, or the Jealous Wife, with Other Sketches, written in 1871. He states that Detter’s text “since its recovery in 1996, has been recognized as the first book of fiction published by an African American in the West and as a volume containing one of the earliest pieces of black extended fiction (the title novella)” (125). In chapter 2 Gardner also discusses “[the] recently recovered . . . work of Maria W. Stewart [in The Repository of Religion and Literature, and of Science and Art...