Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The First Novel On Free Blacks And Race Relations In The North (1857)

By Stephen J. Gertz

The book which now appears before the public may be of interest in relation to a question which the late agitation of the subject of slavery has raised in many thoughtful minds; viz.--Are the race at present held as slaves capable of freedom, self-government, and progress?

The author is a coloured young man, born and reared in the city of Philadelphia...

Being one of the nearest free cities of any considerable size to the slave territory, it has naturally been a resort of escaping fugitives, or of emancipated slaves...

The author takes pleasure in recommending this simple and truthfully-told story to the attention and interest of the friends of progress and humanity in England.
                                                                                     - H.B. Stowe.
The Garies and Their Friends, by Frank J. Webb, the second novel by an African-American (preceded by Clotel; or, The President's Daughter by William Wells Brown, 1853) and the first to consider the lives of free African Americans in the pre-Civil War North was issued in 1857 - but not in the United States. Published in London, it required an ocean to separate it from its home.

Perhaps the sympathetic mixed-race marriage that forms the center of the book had something to do with it. Or, the violent racism and riots that free Blacks experienced  in the City of Brotherly Love, one of the most racially integrated cities in the nation  but intensely so. Maybe it was the author's satire of benevolent yet patronizing white Philadelphian abolitionists who preferred sentimental tear-jerkers ala Uncle Tom's Cabin and didn't appreciate criticism. Possibly, light-skinned blacks passing as whites inspired the heebie-jeebies in fair-skinned citizens. Perchance the idea that black Americans should become capitalists and gain wealth was too much,  the final Whoa, Nelly!

This was not subject matter that comfortable whites found palatable. Though sentimental in its own right, the novel was not an uplifting experience. It provoked anxiety. It was not a great beach read on American shores; it left too much sand in the shorts.

Moreover, it didn't dwell on slavery and its horrors; it was not an abolitionist tract condemning the moral stain. And it raised questions about whether emancipation would succeed. The novel was, for the most part, given short shrift in America, if noticed at all.

It wasn't published in the U.S. until 112 years after its original appearance, in 1969.

Author Frank J. Webb (1828–1894) was an African-American poet, and essayist. The Garies and Their Friends was his first and only novel.

He was born in Philadelphia and grew to become an active member of the city’s free African American community. He married in 1845, and his wife, Mary, gained admiration for her dramatic readings of works by Shakespeare, Sheridan, and Longfellow. Her work attracted the attention of Harriet Beecher Stowe; Stowe was so impressed by Mary’s readings that she adapted scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin expressly for her to perform.

HBS helped to arrange a transatlantic tour for Mary, and, armed with letters of introduction from Stowe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frank and Mary traveled to England in 1856. Mary’s readings gained critical acclaim, and the two received a warm welcome from many British nobles, including Lady Noel Byron (Anne Isabella Noel Byron, 11th Baroness Wentworth and Baroness Byron) to whom Frank dedicated The Garies..., and from Henry, Lord Brougham (1st Baron Brougham and Vaux), who wrote a brief though  enthusiastic introduction for the book.

"According to its many critics...The Garies and Their Friends seems to share [Harriet Beccher Stowe's] doubts concerning the capability of 'the race at present held as slaves" to govern themselves. At least that's one way to read an African American author's frustrating decision to write a novel in 1857 that spends little time detailing the horrors of slavery - a subject that contemporary black writers took pains to elaborate.

"The year that the novel was published, a London Sunday Times reviewer chided Webb for leaving 'untouched' the problem of how emancipation 'is to be effected, without as much injury to slave as slaveowner.' For the most part, time did not change critical attitudes toward the text...More recently, critics...have argued persuasively that the text deserves analysis, not only as the second novel written by an African American, but also as one of the first to deal with volatile questions of identity and loyalty within the black community.

"Yet Webb's text still continues to languish from a general lack of scholarly attention" (Duane, Anna Mae. Remaking Black Motherhood in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends. African American Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 [Summer 2004], pp. 201-212).

The first edition is scarce, particularly in the original cloth. OCLC notes only a handful of copies in institutional libraries, and no copies of the book, in cloth or its simultaneous issue in wrappers, have come to auction within the last twenty-five years.

The Garies and Their Friends is an extremely important American novel, if for no other reason than it illustrates the question unresolved since Webb  first broached it in fiction: Can American blacks successfully assimilate into the American mainstream without losing themselves and their culture in the quest for the American Dream?

WEBB, Frank J. The Garies and Their Friends. With an Introductory Preface by Harrier Beecher Stowe. London and New York: G. Routledge & Co., 1857. First edition (issued simultaneously in wrappers as a "yellowback"). Octavo. vi, [2], 392 pp. Publisher's original dark blue cloth.

BAL 19392.

Images courtesy of Between The Covers, currently offering this item, with our thanks.

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