Biography 25.2 (2002) 406-409
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In his Foreword to The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (1988), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote that "Until now it has been extraordinarily difficult to establish the formal connections between early black women's writing and that of the present, precisely because our knowledge of their work has been broken and sporadic" (1988, xi; 1991, xvii). Gates also observed that without the republication of these women's writings, "a significant segment of the black tradition" would have "remain[ed] silent" (xxii). That the publication of the thirty-volume collection (1988) and the ten-volume supplement (1991) of nineteenth century Black women's writings has indeed made these women's voices audible is evidenced by a steady flow of studies based upon this collection. Joycelyn J. Moody's Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women is not only one further gesture establishing connections between some of these early black women writers, but also her attempt to "reshape our understanding of nineteenth-century U.S. literature" by insisting that we read the autobiographical writings of selected women "as spiritual texts" in order to appreciate their "full complexity" (ix, xi).
Writing against what she perceives to be recent critics' "dis-ease" with the spiritual dimensions of these texts, Moody has elected to emphasize the "theological significance" of these womanist writings. Citing, among others, Joanne Braxton's Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (1989), Frances Smith Foster's Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892 (1993), and Carla Peterson's "Doers of the Word": African-American Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) , Moody situates Sentimental Confessions between what she terms "womanist theo-ethicists and literary historians" (xiv) to confront and deconstruct "the stereotype of the black church woman" (167). The [End Page 406] theo-ethicist, Moody explains, "essentializes black women as moralists, while the literary historian revises black women's literary history" (166). One of Moody's aims is to counter what she perceives as the failure of black feminist critics to address the "intricacies of spirituality and sexuality" of the black church woman (166). Toward this aim, Moody uses texts ranging from 1830 to 1879 as she delineates a feminist reading within a theological frame that allows her to read these texts within and beyond traditional notions of religion and spirituality. While acknowledging a nineteenth-century black female autobiographical tradition, Moody recognizes that this tradition—likeThe Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, which includes Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)—has an eighteenth-century precedent in the "Petition of an African Slave [Belinda], to the Legislature of Massachusetts" (1783). To frame and advance her argument, Moody finds in Belinda's "Petition"—though not written by herself—a discourse that "assumes and seeks to bring about an emotional and moral alliance between reader and text" (9).
This kind of discourse forms the basis of Moody's analysis of the seven women's writings she examines in Sentimental Confessions. Beginning with Maria Stewart's Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1835) and her Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1879), a revision of the former text, and continuing with Jarena Lee's The Religious Experiences of Mrs. Jarena Lee (1836, 1849), Zilpha Elaw's Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels, and Labors of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, An American Female of Colour (1846), Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, Nancy Prince's A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, Written by Herself (1853), The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866), and Julia Foote's A Brand Plucked from the Fire (1879), Moody locates these writings within the jeremiad tradition of "moral suasion, deep feeling, and a shared sense of social...