"A Gentleman of Superior Cultivation and Refinement": Recovering the Biography of Frank J. Webb

Article excerpt

The 1997 reissue of Frank J. Webb's 1857 novel of free Black life in antebellum Philadelphia, The Garies and Their Friends, may finally lead to the consideration--both in our scholarship and our classrooms--that the book and its author rightly deserve. As only the second novel published by a Black American, The Garies can tell us much about how antebellum Black authors "talked back" to other texts that foreground race (Uncle Tom's Cabin looms large on this list), experimented with form and genre to achieve broad socio-political and artistic (as well as individual and economic) goals, and began to shape a distinct African American literature. Further, placed in dialogue with texts like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, The Garies has much to tell us about the creation and positioning of Black identities in a racist North. As the first novel to center on the daily life of Northern free Blacks, The Garies is also the first to treat the question of passing in great depth and the first to show white mob violence against B lacks in the North. [1] Thus, The Garies may also be the first novel to show us a separate, embattled, emergent Black nation within the United States. At the very least, as Robert Reid-Pharr's introduction to the 1997 edition of the novel argues, the book functions at a complex nexus of sentimental ideology and emergent Black nationalism; and as the weaver of such a story, Webb demands careful study.

Yet, although the book tantalizes us with a few bits of information about its author, we know very little about Frank J. Webb. The prefatory materials assure us that Webb was a free Black Philadelphian, and the novel itself shows that he was well-read and had a strong sense of literary conventions. Indeed, though scholars have criticized the novel's craft, this first novel by a seemingly unpublished writer shows a surprisingly keen sense of the possibilities and limits of the genre of sentimental fiction and of novels generally. The book also shows that Webb was well-educated--not only in Anglo-centric history, but also in a PanAfricanist sense of Black history (a portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture looms large in key scenes, for example). And perhaps most importantly, the book suggests that Webb was an astute participant/observer of the complexities of free Black life in the North, perhaps as much an anthropologist as a polemicist. But however intriguing, this information is severely limited.

Reid-Pharr's brief biographical discussion of Webb, like Arthur Davis's introduction to the 1969 Arno Press reissue of The Garies (enlarged slightly in his "The Garies and Their Friends: A Neglected Pioneer Novel"), contains great gaps and some significant errors. Building from original archival research as well as on the pioneering work of Allan Austin and Phillip Lapsansky, this essay starts to fill in these gaps by beginning to sketch out the life of Frank J. Webb, suggesting the multiple contexts surrounding his life, and identifying areas of his biography about which further research could be especially valuable. I suggest, further, that, although The Garies is an important part of Webb's long dialogue with Black nationalism, it is only a part. I begin to offer groundwork that shows that Webb was defining and revising a Black aesthetic in his writing and, more importantly, that he was living that aesthetic--attempting to build a business and work within a frame of "racial uplift" in the 1840s, working wi th Harriet Beecher Stowe and then setting aside Stowe in favor of British abolitionists in the 1850s, considering a kind of "colonization" in Jamaica at the end of the 1850s, leaving Jamaica to return to the U.S. to work for the Freedmen's Bureau in the 1860s, publishing alongside Frederick Douglass and Martin R. Delany in the New Era at the beginning of the 1870s, and leaving the North for the West in the 1870s and 1880s. Thus I argue, by implication, that our specific understanding of The Caries and Their Friends and our more general sense of the multiple histories of Blackness in the nineteenth-century United States can be better informed by delving into Frank Webb's biography. …