The Christian Recorder, Broken Families, and Educated Nations in Julia C. Collins's Civil War Novel the Curse of Caste

By Foreman, P. Gabrielle | African American Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Christian Recorder, Broken Families, and Educated Nations in Julia C. Collins's Civil War Novel the Curse of Caste


Foreman, P. Gabrielle, African American Review


"We know that there are many well-educated, strong and powerful minds among us, that have need only to be discovered ...."--The Christian Recorder (1852)

"Family metaphors abound in Civil War literature."--Catherine Clinton

In April, 1864, at the height of the Civil War, Julia C. Collins's first contribution to the important Black weekly, The Christian Recorder, appeared in its pages. During the next 16 months, reports of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment's triumphant march into Charleston, South Carolina, of Congress's vote to establish the Freedmen's Bureau, and of Abraham Lincoln's reelection and then assassination, were laid out in columns alongside the six essays and then the serialized novel Collins sent in week after week. (1) This small-town Pennsylvania school teacher, wife, and mother did not have a previous record of publication or service when she turned her attention to public authorship in a paper with national reach. Still, when her story, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, began to be serialized in February of 1865, the paper's cross-class readership eagerly followed its twists and turns as they also tracked the war's racial and military retreats and advances.

In spite of Collins's efforts and the public's interest, The Curse of Caste was never completed. As the all-but-solved mystery of the heroine Claire Neville's familial and racial heritage was about to be unveiled to her, the already in-the-know audience expecting to encounter Claire's reaction faced this announcement instead:

   We are sorry to inform our numerous readers that we received a
   letter informing us of the illness of our correspondent of
   "The Curse of Caste; of Slave Bride" [sic] notoriety. We hope
   that her sickness is not unto death. We look forward to a
   speedy return of health and the continuation of her beautiful
   story. N.B.--Many persons are anxious to know whether this story
   will be published in book form. To all such persons we have
   only to say, that we do not know whether it is the author's
   intention to publish it in book form or not.
   ("Correspondent Sick," 30 Sept. 1865)

Collins did not recover; nor did the story appear in book form. Instead, war news and the paper's other religious and secular concerns speedily filled the space where Claire Neville's fate would have been resolved.

The anxious queries of Collins's "numerous readers" communicate the novel's popularity as well as the reach of the paper in which it appears. The eagerness that readers express to see The Curse of Caste published in book form echoes the representational and implied archival values the newspaper's editors first communicated when, in its prospectus, they emphasized its appearance "in a form so as to be folded as a book or pamphlet, that families and individuals may have books made of it and preserved for future references" (McHenry 138). As Elizabeth McHenry suggests, the editors of early Black papers such as the Recorder believed that literature could not serve its function to educate and inspire Black communities if it did not reach multiple generations of engaged readers.

Although we now know that The Curse of Caste was among the first--if not the first--novel by an African American woman to appear in print, Collins passed from public notice for almost 150 years. (2) Such functional deaths, or textual disappearances, complicate critical discussions about the value and valence of placement in literary genealogies that are plotted on multiple temporal, referential, and historical axes of production and reception. In other words, though The Curse of Caste is just now being republished in the early twenty-first century, its "place" in literary history can most productively be "recovered" in diachronic time. Interestingly, the dynamics of the novel's reintroduction mirror issues of displacement, disruption, and recuperation that Collins narrates in the story itself.

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