New book by alum “maps” ignored African American authors/editors

Eric Gardner (’89), who is Chair, Braun Fellow, and Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, has written a book that is stirring up the field of African American literature and history. Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (University Press of Mississippi), recovers the work of early African AMerican authors and editors who have been left off maps drawn by historians and literary critics and calls for a large-scale rethinking of the nineteenth-century African American literary landscape.

Unexpected Places is exactly the kind of book most needed in the field right now,” writes John Ernest, author of Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History.

According to Gardner, “The book was a natural outgrowth of my fascination with archival work—and so was several years in the making. When I ‘found’ Black journalist Jennie Carter and then early Black playwright William Jay Greenly in the midst of other scholars’ rediscoveries that have changed our sense of Black literature, I knew I needed to think through just why so many early Black writers still needed recovery and how that recovery might change . . . well, might change everything about the field.”

In addition to revisiting such better known writers as William Wells Brown, Maria Stewart, and Hannah Crafts, Unexpected Places offers the first critical considerations of several important figures, including Jennie Carter, Polly Wash, Lizzie Hart, and William Jay Greenly. The book’s discussion of physical locations leads to a study of how region is tied to genre, authorship, publication circumstances, the Black press, domestic and nascent Black nationalist idealogies, and Black mobility in the nineteenth century.

Gardner writes, “Geography was key to my thinking about this subject. Growing up in Illinois, I always assumed that I and my Midwestern ancestors were far from questions surrounding, say, slavery–and certainly far from the early development of Black literature in the urban centers of the Northeast. I was wrong—as were most critics in the field. Early Black struggles for literacy and literary culture happened across the nation. I’m hoping that the book will let folks in Ohio and Indiana and Missouri and Nevada and California and all sorts of other ‘unexpected places’ know that a Black literary past might be as close as their own backyard.

“I was already fascinated by historical digging when I got to Illinois Wesleyan, but when I had a chance to combine and build on those skills in one of Bob Bray’s classes to better understand an intriguing writer—Belle Owen, a little-known Illinois author—I was hooked on doing literary history.”

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