World Literature

After the rediscovery of a 19th-century novel, our view of black female writers is transformed

When a writer came across an old newspaper article calling Sarah E Farro "the first negro novelist", she wondered: who was Farro?

Two years ago, I was in the United Kingdom working on a follow-up project for my books Black London and Black Victorians/Black Victoriana. While looking through old British newspapers, I was astonished to read an 1893 announcement in The Daily Telegraph proclaiming Sarah E Farro to be “the first negro novelist” with the publication of her novel True Love.

I wondered: who was this woman? And why didn’t we know about this reportedly groundbreaking novel?

The Daily Telegraph didn’t get it exactly right: we know now that Farro wasn’t the first African-American novelist. Nonetheless, she appears nowhere in the canon of African-American literature.

After doing more research, I soon realised that Farro had made her mark writing about white people – and that this may also be the reason her work was forgotten. Learning of a black woman whose race was documented, whose novel was published – but who disappeared in the historical record – can change how we think about African-American literature.

Farro joins a small club

Searches of American census records show that Sarah E Farro was born in 1859 in Illinois to parents who moved to Chicago from the South. She had two younger sisters, and her race is given as “black” on the 1880 census.

The title page for ‘True Love.’ Author provided
The title page for ‘True Love.’ Author provided

Her novel, True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, was published in 1891 by the Chicago publishing house Donohue & Henneberry. It was one of 58 books by Illinois women writers exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exhibition (World’s Fair) in 1893. Newspapers in the UK and the US heralded the book. Toward the end of her life, in 1937, Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago’s “outstanding race pioneers.” Apparently, she never wrote another novel.

True Love disappeared from the historical record, and for decades historians recognised only three other 19th-century novels written and published by African-Americans.

One other, The Bondswoman’s Narrative, was recently found in manuscript and published, even though the author, Hannah Crafts, is only circumstantially (although convincingly) identified. With my discovery, Farro becomes only the second known African-American woman novelist published in the 19th century. And she now joins William Wells Brown, Harriet E Wilson, and Frank J Webb as the only African-American published novelists in the entire century.

When I returned to the US from the UK, I was able to track down only two copies of True Love in libraries – one at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago and the other at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – and headed to Chicago to read it. To briefly summarise: the novel tells the story of a man whose quest to marry his love, Janey, is thwarted by Janey’s selfish sister and mother. Generous and beloved Janey nurses her sister through a fever, only to catch it herself and die.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign later digitised it for me, and now it’s available online for anyone to read. Just two weeks ago I found an original copy on eBay and immediately bought it for $124.

The eBay listing makes no mention of her race; nowhere except in early newspaper pieces is she identified as a black woman, so this important piece of history has remained invisible until now.

Farro’s was one of 58 books by female writers featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  Boston Public Library/flickr, CC BY
Farro’s was one of 58 books by female writers featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Boston Public Library/flickr, CC BY

An unexpected subject matter?

The reason for True Love’s disappearance might be simple: it takes place in England, a place Farro probably never visited, and all of its characters are white.

British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Wikimedia Commons
British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Wikimedia Commons

As literary scholar Elizabeth McHenry has shown, 19th-century black women’s literary clubs, which catered to mostly middle-class members and aspirants, primarily read prominent white English and American authors, in addition to black political writers. It was natural, then, that when Farro took up her pen she emulated her stated favorite novelists: Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Oliver Wendell Holmes – writers of popular fiction admired by black and white readers alike.

Had Farro’s role models been black female authors who had written novels about black women, she may have crafted a different kind of novel.

Today we assume that early African-American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle and that their access to literacy – let alone the Victorian literary canon – must have been limited. Finding Farro’s novel changes that. Because we didn’t realize that authors like Farro existed, we had limited our perspective on their work.

As McHenry writes, “the danger of privileging [slave narratives] is that we risk overlooking the many other forms of literary production that coexisted alongside [them].”

We have much to learn about what black women read, what they wrote, and for whom. In this case, it seems that many of Farro’s readers must have been white women.

The significnace of not writing about race

Ironically, though Farro was first celebrated and brought to public attention precisely because of her race, she doesn’t fit the mold of familiar early African-American writers. Nor is she similar to those who have been revived and “rediscovered.” Perhaps the aforementioned Brown, Webb and Wilson were noticed and celebrated not just because of their race, but because they all wrote about race.

Farro’s novel, on the other hand, is a domestic romance that tends toward melodrama. Although she explicitly sets it in England, she also betrays her unfamiliarity with that country. For instance, she gives British incomes in dollars and mentions that a character wants his wedding to take place before Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, a Chicago publisher saw fit to bring out her book.

Sarah E Farro’s rediscovered novel tells us that black women of her time read, discussed and emulated the works of people who were not like them. Farro lived in the North through the end of slavery, preceded the Great Migration, published a novel as an American Victorian and lived through – and past – the Harlem Renaissance.

Surely those writers owe her a debt of gratitude, just as we have an obligation to bring her back into the fold of African-American and women novelists and to think about how these discoveries change our views of the African-American experience.

Gretchen Gerzina, Professor of English, Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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