Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends
Contextualized within African American
Slave Narratives

Henry Golemba

WHEN CONSIDERING THE TRANSFORMATION OF INDIVIDUAL LIVES INTO public letters, no more revealing resource exists than African American narratives from the antebellum period. They cast special light and offer unique twists on the essential questions modern scholarship asks when pondering the presentation of the self in autobiography and fiction. The four antebellum African American novels and almost six thousand slave narratives are a vast array, and I have selected Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857) as the quilting point that pulls together the crucial issues that revolve around the phenomenon of life becoming script.1 As the persistently most neglected novel of the four, The Garies helps to expose some of the assumptions we bring to bear when we try to comprehend this phenomenon. The other works, while also controversial and involved with massive publication problems in their day, have seen academia fashion tools, methodologies, and categories to configure and comprehend African American materials from the slave era. The Garies, however, still does not make a neat fit. The novel occupies the role today that Our Nig filled in the 1850s. Few risked commenting on Our Nig then; today, few care to critique The Garies publicly.

This essay builds to The Garies through contextualization, first by addressing six key issues of autobiographical writing and then the context of the other three African American novels—Martin Delany’s Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859–60), William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853), and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859). The six key issues of both the slave narratives and the novels are: “the writer” and how much one must don a mask to be seen in public; the sponsor as an influential person who ushers the writer into the public arena; the audience in its

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