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  • Teaching to Resist, Teaching to Recover: Charlotte Forten’s Sea Islands Archives across Private and Public Forms
  • Mollie Barnes

In my second summer at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, I read Charlotte Forten’s Civil War journals with my students in “Abolitionism in the Sea Islands,” a course I designed about social-reform literature from our region. We followed this up by reading “Life on the Sea Islands,” a two-part series Forten published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1864. I wanted my students to study private and public versions of these entries. The first documented the perspective of a teacher who traveled from Salem to Port Royal Sound in the midst of the Civil War. The second compressed this immediate experience for a national audience at the moment when she returned home. We were intrigued with permutations of certain passages that Forten copies—sometimes almost word for word, but in abbreviated and reorganized narrative contexts—as she transforms her journals into articles. Her iterations are striking. My students’ curiosity about her exacting revisions sparked my own as a teacher and scholar. After the course ended, I traced Forten’s revisions, comparing the journals with pieces published, at varying intervals, in the Boston Evening Transcript (1862), the Salem Register (1862), the Liberator (1862), the Atlantic Monthly (1864), and Lydia Maria Child’s The Freedmen’s Book (1865).1 These comparisons dramatized her most provocative activist-revisionist editorial strategies. In fact, the relationships among these versions—and among the texts she cites within these texts—illuminate the potential for her nineteenth-century prose to enact powerful literary recoveries that blur traditional boundaries between “private” and “public” texts and contexts.

In this essay I argue that we ought to read Forten’s private and public records of her experiences at the Penn School in South Carolina together as her “Sea Islands archives.” While previous scholarship has read Forten’s journals [End Page 235] as drafts of privately and publicly circulated letters and articles addressed to friends in newspapers and literary magazines, I argue that the boundaries between her private and her public writing, and its circulation and publication histories, are far more complicated.2 Instead of interpreting her journals as drafts of her newspaper articles (in terms of linear circulation and publication histories), we ought to read these texts together, side by side, as interconnected and intersecting pieces in her Sea Islands archives. In this way, we can read the journals not as drafts but as a textual nexus through which we are able to recover the backstories of letters, articles in periodicals, and her own literary recoveries that might otherwise remain illegible if we read only the “private” or the public versions—or we read one as primary to the other. The recoveries and archival strategies we can trace across Forten’s public and private forms are intertwined, however different the contexts of the journals and the periodicals where she published may be, since the writing is, in part, a patchwork of shared sentences/paragraphs. In this essay, I read Forten’s journals as the center of a network of Sea Islands letters and articles that illuminates the ways she was self-consciously doing—and documenting—important textual recovery work as a teacher at the Penn School: not only revising and circulating her stories about teaching but also recording the complex private and public networks that published this material. As I will demonstrate, studying Forten’s Sea Islands archives in this way invites us to reframe our close-reading practices and engage them in broader conversations about nineteenth-century periodical print culture.

When we study Forten’s texts together, we can also study how she positions teaching and editing as strategic acts of resistance and recovery. I do this, first, by studying John Brown’s recursive appearances in her public and private writing. “John Brown’s Body” punctuates Forten’s journals. This Civil War anthem is one of the first things she teaches her students, who sing it with her, again and again, on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, when the Emancipation Proclamation was read under Beaufort’s Emancipation Oak. Next, I unpack other textual circulations and...


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pp. 235-262
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