- Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture by Eric Gardner
When Julia Collins’s unfinished novel The Curse of Caste, or The Slave Bride was republished in 2006 by Oxford University Press, it marked the text’s first appearance in print since its initial 1865 serialization in the Christian Recorder, the weekly newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. At that time, the controversial marketing of Collins’s text as the first novel by an African American woman provoked debate, and the decision by editors William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun to supply the unfinished novel with two endings, one “happy” and one “tragic,” inspired scathing remarks in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This controversy has made The Curse of Caste perhaps the best-known literary text to appear in the pages of the Christian Recorder, a periodical described by Andrews and Kachun as “the closest thing to a national newspaper that [nineteenth-century] black Americans could claim as their own” (qtd. 10). Naturally, therefore, Eric Gardner’s new study of the periodical, Black Print Unbound, devotes a chapter to Collins’s serial. In a welcome move, Gardner refocuses discussion away from the debate over the novel’s “firstness.” Instead, his analysis argues for the importance of Juno Hays, a character often dismissed as a stock mammy type, as a representative figure [End Page 224] for the Recorder’s community of contributors and readers (227). He argues that Juno—as Christian and spiritualist, as domestic worker and seer—embodies contradictions representing the faultlines of overlapping debates about gender, education, and religion that unfolded throughout the pages of the Recorder, debates that show how the newspaper served as a print forum for the diverse voices of a geographically dispersed community.
Although Gardner devotes only a small portion of Black Print Unbound to Collins’s serial, his Juno-centered reading exemplifies his approach throughout this impressively researched book. A focus on Juno, Gardner writes, requires the reader to “dig through the novel” for traces of her fragmentary and discontinuous presence, “arguably much like Black readers would have had to dig through American print to find the fragmented records of their own histories” (238). A similar project of recovery defines Gardner’s study of the Recorder. A periodical “conceived by African Americans, edited by African Americans, written primarily by African Americans, and largely distributed by African Americans to an almost completely African American audience” (4), the Recorder created a “community of print” that “stretched beyond physical location [and] relied on the pages of the paper for a common meeting place” (251). In Black Print Unbound, Gardner sets out to explore the biographical, social, and institutional contexts in which this community of print was formed, and how the individuals and groups who made up this community “used the aesthetic, sociopolitical, and philosophical qualities of published words to address, record, and benefit their lives and those of their fellows” (11).
After laying out these general aims in the first chapter, Gardner turns in Part One to material and cultural history. Chapter Two recounts the Recorder’s tumultuous first two decades, from its founding (as the Christian Herald) in 1848 through the years 1861–1868, when AME minister Elisha Weaver was connected with the periodical and, for much of that time, served as its editor. In Gardner’s telling, Weaver emerges as a formidable figure who sparked fierce loyalty and opposition by turns and who, after being ousted as editor by the AME hierarchy, carried on a public feud with his successor in the pages of the Recorder for nearly two years until his ultimate reinstatement. The intricacies of AME Church politics and frequent changes in leadership that shaped the periodical’s early years make for an involved narrative; Gardner has taken its full measure, but readers may wish for a timeline to sort it all out.
Chapter Three, which turns to production and financial matters, is in large part devoted to an analysis of advertising content...