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  • Remnants of Memory:Testimony and Being in Frances E. W. Harper's Sketches of Southern Life
  • Rebecka Rutledge Fisher (bio)

It's a kind of literary archeology: on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply. . . . [M]y reliance on the image—on the remains—in addition to recollection . . . yields up a kind of a truth. . . . [T]he image comes first and tells me what the "memory" is about.

—Toni Morrison, "The Site of Memory" (1987)

Neither the poem nor the song can intervene to save impossible testimony; on the contrary, it is testimony . . . that founds the possibility of the poem.

—Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999)

That is why thinking holds to thecoming of what has been,and is remembrance.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .But poetry that thinks is in truththe topology of Being.This topology tells Being thewhereabouts of its actual presence.

—Martin Heidegger, "The Thinker as Poet" (1947/1954) [End Page 55]

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Unnamed woman in front of a slave pen, in Alexandria, Virginia. Glass stereograph created between 1861 and 1869.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B811-2300.

[End Page 56]

If one project of contemporary literary criticism is to submit the reading of poetry to a certain number of statements regarding memory, testimony, and the meaning of being, then Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Sketches of Southern Life (1872) serves as an exemplum to the present generation of literary critics. The poems collected in Sketches of Southern Life—specifically, those poems that constitute the "Aunt Chloe" cycle—have been invariably interpreted as an important literary statement of the postbellum vernacular subject. The century after Harper's poems appeared saw a line of early critics, led by James Weldon Johnson and J. Saunders Redding, who, though ambivalent about the value of the preponderance of Harper's verse and fiction, saw the Aunt Chloe poems as the incipit of black vernacular poetry, the cornerstone upon which later poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes would build dialect verse and blues-infused metrical compositions.1 Over the last twenty years, black feminist criticism—the line of Frances Smith Foster, Hazel Carby, and Melba Joyce Boyd—has founded its judgment on Harper's poetic and novelistic representations of pre- and post-Reconstruction life, her critique of sentimental women's fiction, and her searing treatment of American racism and immorality.2 These two lines coalesce in their attempts to limn Harper's role as a poet who projects the vernacular black subject into the realm of history. Frances Smith Foster's work is indicative of this thrust; she explains that during Harper's postwar travels, the author "was especially interested in working with women and frequently conducted private sessions with them 'about their daughters, and about things connected with the welfare of the race.'" Harper's journeys throughout the Reconstruction South ended in 1871, the year before the appearance of Sketches of Southern Life—"a substantially original work," as Smith Foster reminds us, "that rendered in poetic form many of the scenes and characters [Harper] had encountered."3

Sketches is, then, an act of historiography as well as an act of poetry. It is, we might say, Harper's vision of the coincidence of truth and art. It is also an undeclared collective memoir, the composite testimony of freed African Americans Harper met in the course of her postbellum travels. An examination of the Aunt Chloe poems through the layered framework of memory, [End Page 57] testimony, and being is thus not without a certain significance. As I describe that layering, I shall imply its theory—a theory of applied poetics practiced in tandem with a theory of history, an effort to discover an analogy for the task of the poet who seeks to act as surrogate witness to historical and contemporary situations.

The critic who attends to the main texts of trauma finds that any act of testimony, of witnessing an event such as slavery, contains an impossibility...


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