Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Frank J. Webb
c. 1830-c. 1870

FRANK J. WEBB was probably born sometime in the late 1820s or early 1830s, as the preface by Harriet Beecher Stowe to his only published book, The Garies and Their Friends (1857), describes him as a "colored young man, born and reared in the city of Philadelphia." Stowe goes on to describe him as a member of a "large class" in Philadelphia that has "increased in numbers, wealth, and standing," so that they now "constitute a peculiar society of their own, presenting many social peculiarities worthy of interest and attention."

Webb's novel was published in London, and the book is dedicated to Lady Noel Byron, so that it is speculated that Webb resided in England for a time. Webb was also acquainted with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry, Lord Brougham, both ardent abolitionists; it may therefore be conjectured that Webb was involved in the abolitionist movement, although this topic does not figure prominently in his novel.

The Garies and Their Friends is the second known novel written by a black American, following William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853). It is a pioneering work in being the first black novel to discuss the lives of Northern blacks and to treat with subtlety and depth the idea of the "mixed marriage," a topos that became common in black literature of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But like many black and white writers of the time, Webb was given to sentimentality, melodrama, and a highly contrived and implausible plot.

The novel focuses on two families, each of whom migrates from the South to the North in the hope of economic betterment but encounter racism in various forms. The Garie family, consisting of a wealthy white man, a mulatto black woman, and their two children, migrate north on the recommendation of Mrs. Garie's cousin, George Winston, a black man who can "pass" for white and who emerges as a trickster figure, revealing his cleverness by bamboozling the white racists he encounters. But the Garie family suffers tragedy when "Slippery" George Stevens, a white man and the villain of the novel, incites a race riot that leads to the death of Mr.

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