restricted access 5. Breaking New Grounds with Milton in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Moses: A Story of the Nile
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189 5 Breaking New Grounds with Milton in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Moses: A Story of the Nile While a militant ministry of “self-made men” preached Milton’s satanic epic as a symbolic expression of resistant black masculinity , a collective of “self-invented women” labored in the vineyard of racial and social uplift, operating in the spirit of a tempered assertiveness . Self-invented women, as defined by Mary Helen Washington , constitute the scores of early African American female authors who have fallen outside literary history because they or their works have been neglected or dismissed by patriarchal critics. These women, according to Washington, constitute “the disinherited .” More important, they are literary artists who “do not fit in” because their “ritualized journeys,...articulated voices,...[as well as their] symbolic spaces are rarely the same as a man’s.”1 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the most prolific African American writer of the nineteenth century, qualifies as a self-invented woman in her own right. Affectionately known as the “Bronze Muse,” Harper is also a prominent member of Milton’s early black sisterhood. Completing and complicating Milton after slavery was abolished and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Harper engages the epic poet in her own time and on her own rebellious grounds of intertextual waywardness and remastery. 190 Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt Later works in Harper’s canon reveal she knew Milton well as early as 1869. This acquaintance with Milton is not surprising, given her privileged educational background. Harper, according to MaryemmaGraham,was“bornfreeinBaltimorein1825,”orphaned at three, and raised by her maternal uncle, William Watkins.2 According to Melba Joyce Boyd, Watkins was “the most influential person during Harper’s early development.”3 For instance, he founded the school for free blacks where Harper received her formal education. Watkins ran the William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth and trained students in “the classics, rhetoric, and the Bible.”4 This curriculum was specifically designed to prepare students for teaching or the ministry. With this type of educational mission, Harper would have definitely encountered Milton in her studies. Her formal education at the academy ended in 1839, but she would have been reacquainted with Milton as a result of gaining employment as a domestic for a Mr. Armstrong, the owner of a local bookshop. Mr. Armstrong granted Harper “access to the family library,” and it was around this time that her poetry began appearing in various newspapers.5 The quality of Harper’s earliest poetry was exceptional enough to cause various readers to doubt its originality.6 By 1846, Harper had published her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, of which no surviving copies exist. In 1850, Harper relocated to Ohio, where she taught sewing at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. Two years later, she secured a different teaching position in Pennsylvania. In 1853, the Maryland legislature “enacted a law whereby any person of color who entered via the northern border of the state could be sold into slavery.”7 Exiled from her kin as a result of its enactment, Harper relocated to Philadelphia, served on the Underground Railroad under William Still, and wrote and published poetry in Garrison’s Liberator as well as the Frederick Douglass’ Papers prior to moving once again to Boston. “Warmly received by the Anti-Slavery Office and Y. B. Yerrinton and Sons,” who subsequently published her second collection of verse, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, Harper went on to pursue a career as an antislavery lecturer in Maine, various northern states, and Canada. She proved an instant success and capitalized upon her favorable reception by selling “several thousand copies of her books” while on these lecture Breaking New Grounds 191 tours and contributing “a generous portion of the proceeds to the Underground Railroad.”8 When she returned to Philadelphia in 1857, Harper had established herself as a “prominent lecturer and the author of a book of poetry that had sold more than 10,000 copies.”9 Throughout her career, Harper wrote almost exclusively in the ballad form. Frances Smith Foster explains Harper’s popularity, noting that “during the antebellum period,” Harper’s “first two volumes reportedly sold over 50,000 copies.” Poems, in particular, “merited at least twenty printings before her death” in 1911. These statistics indicate nineteenth century audiences did not deem Harper’s poetry as inferior. Her predilection for ballads evidences her understanding “that nineteenth-century popular audiences preferred poems with rhythms and rhymes that were easy to memorize and to recite.”10 Like...


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