In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Anthologies
  • Archive Collections
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Harper and Transnational Influences
  • Harper and Other African American Writers
  • Antislavery Activism
  • Harper, Citizenship, and Black Print Culture
  • Harper and Women’s Rights
  • Lynching, Racial Passing, and Racial Uplift
  • Temperance and Christianity
  • Illustrations

American Literature Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Elizabeth Cali, Joycelyn K. Moody
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0085


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (b. 24 September 1825–d. 22 February 1911) is one of the most studied African American women writers in print scholarship. Her first published short story “The Two Offers” and her masterpiece Iola Leroy were for nearly a century the most widely known fictions by a 19th-century black woman. Nevertheless, critical attention to Harper remains grossly limited, especially in comparison to such canonical 19th-century US male authors as Herman Melville. The dearth of Harper scholarship ensues partly from a lack of autobiographical detail within her extant writings. Moreover, some of her professional papers were destroyed in a fire in the offices of the Philadelphia printers of Ferguson and Company. That noted, critics have situated Harper amid both 19th-century sentimentalist and realist writers. Scholarship devoted to Harper has accumulated since black arts–era critics Filler, Hill, and Robinson and black feminist critics Christian, Foster, and M. H. Washington studiously recovered Harper’s writings, staking out places for them within various (African) American literary traditions. Also, even before Graham called for “immediate and critical attention” to Harper’s works (Harper 1988, p. xxxvi, cited under Anthologies), Sherman and Ammons began recentering Harper in US poetry and women’s studies. Raised by her uncle, William Watkins, Harper worked as a teenage domestic for a Baltimore bookseller named Armstrong before becoming the first female faculty member (teaching sewing) at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Union Seminary near Columbus, Ohio, in 1850. Harper’s work in the Armstrong bookstore and home provided her with access to the family’s library and determined her long literary career. She published at least ten volumes of poetry between 1846 and 1891, three serialized novels, magazine fiction especially notable for its racially ambiguous characters, and the novel Iola Leroy. She earned her living as an acclaimed writer and lecturer, educator, antislavery and temperance activist, orator, suffragist, and leader in various black and women’s rights organizations and Christian institutions. Across the 19th century, thousands of Americans heard or read her speeches decrying gender, race, and class inequities; her published works appeared in every major independent black publication of her long life and in numerous white venues as well. Hers was a fiercely moral rhetoric, often balanced with political or folk wit. Throughout her life, Harper suffered periodic illness; images of sickness and death recur in her work. Harper’s writings alternately critique injustice and exuberantly celebrate abolition, emancipation, and the promises of civil liberties for all.

General Overviews

Within fifteen years of Harper’s death, the sketch in Brown 1988 (originally published in 1926) sought to keep Harper’s significance foregrounded in the 20th century. Overviews of Harper’s life and writings emerged during the black arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, including Baker 1972, Filler 1971, and Robinson 1969. During the renaissance of black women’s writings, and in scholarly works by or about black feminists of the 1980s, Ammons 1985 and Washington 1987 were among leaders of the resurgence of attention to Harper’s writing that continues into the 21st century. In the 1990s, Foster’s exemplary research on Harper predominated, as it does to this day. Still more work is needed to garner for Harper the popular and scholarly readings her writing merits. Some critics dismiss her importance and read her as capitulating to white readers, especially critics of the heroine of Iola Leroy who read her as too white and as a sign of Harper’s alleged investment in white power and white beauty. Among others, Foster 1994 contests this critique, citing Harper’s extensive political activism as supportive of intercultural coalition building but invested foremost in the “progress and elevation” of African Americans (p. 536). Later critics have generally read Iola as a figure designed to counter negative stereotypes of black women circulating during the period of most frequent lynchings.

  • Ammons, Elizabeth. “Legacy Profile: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911).” Legacy 2.2 (1985): 61–66.

    DOI: 10.2307/25678939

    Influential feminist biographical profile of Harper’s life with analysis of “The Two Offers” as a story promoting women’s friendships and protesting drunkenness and spousal abuse. Distinguishes Iola Leroy from its predecessor Our Nig (1859) by Harriet E. Wilson and discusses Harper’s major themes of black male bravery, black political advancements, mother-daughter relationships, and Christian heroism.

  • Baker, Houston, Jr. “Balancing the Perspective: A Look Back at Early Black American Literary Artistry.” Negro American Literature Forum 6.3 (1972): 65–71.

    DOI: 10.2307/3041083

    At a crucial moment in black studies and African American literary scholarship, Baker deems Harper the best of the “orator-poets,” citing her poetry as representative of an early black American hybrid tradition of poetics based on her inclusion of black folk traditions and conventions of British poetry. Assigns significance to Harper’s oratory and poetics that he later and controversially determines lacking in her novelistic career (Workings of the Spirit, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Brown, Hallie Q. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” In Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers 25. Edited by Hallie Q. Brown, 97–103. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    Brown’s extraordinary collection of representative black women pioneers born between 1750 and 1875 includes a sketch of Harper, noting an employer’s first recognition of the teenage poet’s literary talents. Discusses Watkins’s commentary on the execution of Margaret Garner, her brief marriage to Fenton Harper, and her postbellum temperance work among clubwomen. Originally published in 1926.

  • Filler, Louis. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” In Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul Boyer, 137–139. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

    Representative of the 1970s revival of 19th-century black protest literature. Atypical biographical sketch details Harper’s early work-life with a Baltimore bookseller’s family as well as her paternal uncle’s (William Watkins’s) trade as a shoemaker and his self-training in medicine and languages.

  • Foster, Frances Smith. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, 532–536. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    This biographical entry delineates a chronological overview of Harper’s life with a focus on her literary and activist accomplishments as an essayist, lecturer, poet, and fiction writer. Foster emphasizes both Harper’s investment in coalition building between black and white communities and her steadfast prioritization of African Americans’ interests and racial uplift.

  • Robinson, William Henry. Early Black American Poets: Selections with Biographical and Critical Introductions. Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown, 1969.

    Positions Harper as an orator-poet whose employment of sentimental poetic conventions reflect her era and the speaking tradition of African Americans. Estranges the popularity of Harper’s poetry from its frequent appearance in circulating print contexts, suggesting her popularity relied on the “impact of her histrionics, of her ‘acting’” (p. xvi).

  • Washington, Mary Helen. “Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Forerunners—Harper and Hopkins.” In Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860–1960. By Mary Helen Washington, 73–86. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1987.

    Pathbreaking feminist antecedent of Foster’s recovery of Harper’s oeuvre situates Iola Leroy within African American women’s fiction. Reads heroic Iola as more political than her precursor Janette in Harper’s “The Two Offers,” though both ultimately conform to true womanhood. Applauds Iola’s self-loving choices over those of 20th-century self-loathing mulatto characters.

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