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Milton’s Early Black Sisterhood

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 259-290 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0003

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In Feminist Milton, Joseph Wittreich identifies Phillis Wheatley and Anna Julia Cooper as two of “the white woman’s black sisters” in the overlooked community of John Milton’s early female readers. Several critics have mentioned John Milton’s influence on Wheatley’s poetry, for example, with her use of blank verse in Poems on Various Subjects (1773). However, no one has offered a theory of Miltonic presence in Wheatley’s poetry or of her various intertextual engagements with England’s epic poet of liberty. Cooper extends Wheatley’s engagements with Milton at the close of the nineteenth century in her collection of essays, A Voice from the South (1892). These feminist essays both allude to and offer criticism of Milton. Wheatley and Cooper are as yet the best-known members of Milton’s early black sisterhood. However, other, hitherto unrecognized, black women “tested and testified” with Milton prior to the twentieth century. Because these Miltonic echoes “test ways in which the English language might better serve them as African American women writers” and involve a range of theological preoccupations with Christian ministry, they function as literary rituals of feminist evangelism.

Beginning with Wheatley’s better-known echoes of Milton, my essay analyzes the evangelical Miltonic allusions in the works of four other, still obscure, black women writers, Charlotte Forten Grimké, “Sallie,” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Sarah E. Tanner. I turn again to Cooper near the end of my essay, but conclude by considering the work of another lesser-known writer, Henrietta Ray. An overarching question frames my close analysis of all seven writers (Wheatley, Forten, Sallie, Harper, Tanner, Cooper, and Ray): what theory of intertextuality and literary reception might best account for the various appropriations of Milton in their writings? Retrieving these writers and their evangelical appropriations of Milton from the margins of footnotes in Milton criticism can give us a more precise understanding of how intertextuality works in their writings.

It should go without saying that the members of Milton’s early black sisterhood are not invested simply in imitating the seventeenth century poet when they appropriate his work or comment on him in their writings. Wittreich, for one, regards their literary engagement with Milton as “encompassing and emulating the subversive character of his art.” Understanding this intertextual tradition, however, requires a more theoretical assessment of the literature of this neglected sisterhood. A diverse audience of readers and writers, members of Milton’s early black sisterhood espouse gospels of liberty different from those of their black male counterparts, such as Frederick Douglass. They resemble their male counterparts in the African American tradition only to the extent that both groups had something significant to say about Milton. Milton’s black sisterhood distinguish themselves by voicing Milton on their own terms and according to their own aesthetic rituals.

Their feminist approach to Miltonic appropriation qualifies this sisterhood of writers as a community of “self-invented women,” a term Mary Helen Washington applies to a class of “disinherited” black and female writers and orators who have been marginalized throughout literary history. The literary art of self-invented women, according to Washington, merits special attention because their “ritualized journeys … articulated voices, [and] symbolic spaces” differ from men to the degree that their writings have often been suppressed by patriarchal authorities. Since criticism has traditionally privileged male interpretations of literary texts, the works of black women have often been misinterpreted, devalued, or marginalized. Notwithstanding the biases of their detractors, self-invented women continued writing themselves into visibility and selfhood.

Writing amid cultural opprobrium, a select group of black women writers adopted a political stance in response to various “interdependent control systems” that challenged their attempts to project stable representations of positive black womanhood. Contesting negative cultural scripts concerning black womanhood, what Evelyn Higginbotham acknowledges as a “metalanguage of race,” black women writers chose modes of self-invention rather than the “self-made” manhood championed by race men like Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and James Monroe Whitfield. Whereas “self-made” men typically appropriated Milton through a rhetoric of militant rebellion, a generation of self-invented women turned their allusions to Milton into new literary rituals that contested the grounds of interpretation in...



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