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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist by Hazel V. Canby

Francis Harper, the first African American female novelist.

Book Review
Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist
by Hazel V. Canby
p. 1987
Oxford University Press

   Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, traces the origins of novels written by African American authors prior to the breakthrough of Zora Hurston in the 1930s, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison after that.   Two of the books discussed, Nella Larsen's Passing and Uncle Tom's Cabin (not written by an African-American) have been discussed here as part of the 1001 Books Project.  Others were wholly unfamiliar to me because they have failed to become "classics" and are therefore not taught or discussed with any regularity.

  Two major authors in this book with whom I was previously unacquainted are Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.  Hopkins, in particular, wrote a great deal of fiction while she was editrix of a Boston-based African-American literary magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.  Harper's primary work is Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), generally called the first full length novel by an African-American female writer.  Hopkins wrote several novels, but three of these were only published in her magazine and never as stand alone editions.  Her stand alone novel was Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900).

 Canby is particularly forceful in arguing for the canonical inclusion of Iola Leroy and Contending Forces.  She also advocates for Larsen's two 1001 Books inclusions: Passing and Quicksand.  It was in fact, those two novels which spurred me to read this book, to perhaps see if there were other "lost classics" out there.  Canby didn't quite convince me, but I'm sure that her analysis would come as a revelation to anyone interested in the field of African-American studies.

  Her prose is somewhat studded with the archaism's of late 20th century deconstructionist literary critics, always regrettable, but here the academic blah blah is outweighed by the usefulness of her discussion about these little known (to me) texts and authors,

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