Archive for August, 2010


Reconstructive Uplift: The Impact of Harper’s Iola Leroy

Reconstructive Uplift:  The Impact of Harper’s Iola Leroy

Following the dramatic events at Appomattox leading to the end of the Civil War, the United States found itself in an unprecedented state of fracture, racial instability, and uncertainty.  As the country struggled to stand again and reunify itself, many factors emerged as key components to this reconstruction.  Perhaps most importantly during this divisive era was the issue of racial equality and how the freshly bandaged Union could establish and adapt to a new, post-slavery existence.  New voices in literature emerged during this time, offering perspectives that up to this point had been mainly silenced by prejudicial societal views concerning race.  Frances E.W. Harper, in her novel Iola Leroy, introduced readers to the racial uplift – and through its major themes, characters, dialogues, and implications – brought light into a culture previously hidden in the shadows created by the polarizing effects of racism.  Her use of these literary elements, including irony, plot and storyline, and symbolism, converge to deliver a concrete statement of the black American’s post-war struggle for identity, the debate for equal standing, and the Phoenix-like concept of racial uplift against a culture firmly rooted in white, middle-class, and intellectual standards.

As a racial uplift novel, Iola Leroy has at its core several elements which point to how blacks during this period started the slow, emotionally-charged process of progression, both individually and as an entire race.  This theme of empowerment and rising out of the shadows is at the heart of the novel, and Harper uses both strong characters and meaningful dialogue to illustrate this concept.  At the novel’s outset, we are introduced to Robert Johnson, a light-skinned mulatto slave who has recently enlisted in the Union army.  His speech is that which would be expected of a slave during this period; colloquial and containing much of the dialect expected from someone with little education and opportunity.  In the vernacular common to this type, and with the reader’s understanding that “voice marks class affiliation”, (Christmann 5)Robert speaks of his mother being sold and taken from him, “…I ain’t got nothing ‘gainst my ole Miss, except she sold my mother from me.  And a boy ain’t nothin’ without his mother.” (Harper 17-18).  Harper also introduces us to the “folk” type character, also the uneducated slave of the period.  Characters such as Uncle Daniel and Aunt Linda emerge to represent this folk, and are characterized by their lack of standard-English speech.  Linda explains to Robert in one early passage, “…oh, sho, chile, I can’t read de newspapers, but old Missus’ face is newspaper nuff for me.  I looks at her ebery mornin’…” (9).  Uncle Daniel replies to Robert’s questions of enlistment with “…I’se been praying and hoping for (freedom) dese many years…an’ ef I warn’t boun’, I would go wid you ter-morrer..” (18).  This dialect is an important element in that it shapes the character and thinking of the slaves to which individual progress was unattainable.  The Aunt Lindas and Uncle Daniels of the novel represent the individual who does not rise to a higher social standing, a better educational level, or recognition in society.  Tom Anderson is another of these types; though honorable in his actions and instrumental in the uplift of his race, Tom is “black as black can be” (44), has little education, and is unable to enlist in the Union army as anything other than a servant.  Language is a barrier also for Tom, and he uses the same “folk” dialect when he speaks.  His options for individual uplift are limited because of these characteristics, and his sacrificial death symbolizes the division between what types of people are able to progress to a higher standard (Robert) and who are not.  It is representative of his nobility in life that he should die honorably while remaining in the “folk-class”, so that other members of his race may live to see the fruits of progress.  Additionally, as the story unfolds, Robert’s dialect changes significantly.  He moves from the common folk-speech to that of an educated white man; to such a degree that his white commanding officer contributes this well-placed observation:   “…you do not look like them, you do not talk like them…” (44).  This is a crucial example of Harper illustrating how Robert is advancing in society.  To have a white man make a statement like that, in the historical context of the time – Robert is now able to choose whether to live as a white man and “pass”, or as a black man and remain true to himself.  This choice and all the implications that come with it, define the entire uplift theme of the novel, and solidify Robert as a character who has progressed beyond the class of his birth.  This theme of moral character and choice show up again later in the story during a discussion between Iola Leroy and Robert, in which she speaks of Dr. Latimer’s decision to embrace his black heritage.  She states, “…it were better that he should walk the ruggedest paths of life a true man than tread the softest carpets a moral cripple…” (266).  In the truest tradition of a racial uplift novel, it is noteworthy to point out that of all of Harper’s light-skinned, mixed-heritage characters (Iola, Robert, Dr. Latimer) choose to live as black individuals.  In a society which will challenge blacks to prove themselves worthy of white recognition and opportunities, this is an amazingly honorable choice.

Backtracking just a little, to the point where we first meet this eloquent protagonist, Iola Leroy, we learn that she is also of mixed heritage, like Robert, but is raised white on her father’s southern plantation.  She is unaware of her “blackness” until later in the story when she discovers the secret and is sold into slavery.  It is this context which makes the light-skinned Iola such a remarkable character in terms of uplift.  Her language is educated and refined, and at times she is unable to decipher the meanings of “black speech”.  This is important since “uninflected” (Christmann 11) speech was one of the most important aspects of education, social standing, and progress.  Harper inserts this characteristic to indicate an initial benchmark for uplifting; in that “black speech marks the potential…for black progress” (10).  It shows us the significant difference between what the “folksy” blacks are and what the “progressive” blacks are to become.  Iola is also shown early in her life to defend slavery, saying “…slavery can’t be wrong, for my father is a slave-holder…”.  Again, this is representative of Iola living as a white woman in a white societal paradigm early on, and then embracing her blackness later as she herself is uplifted throughout the story.

Continuing in the vein of character and the development of these characters, it is important to contrast a couple of very important events, which Harper uses to characterize uplift.  The first sets of events are the secret, in-the-woods prayer meetings of the folk-characters early and then again later in the novel.  During these meetings, we see the characters speaking in their ungrammatical dialect, and with the exception of a few, not very interested in individual advancement.  These meetings are characterized by the fact that the older folks represent a group unable to progress, although insistent that some of the younger members of the group leave and do just that.  Aunt Linda represents this voice with her statement, “…well, I’m jis’ gwine to keep on prayin’ an’ b’lievin…” (Harper 12).  Later, when they meet again and Robert finds his mother, the older characters (now free) still refuse to advance in terms of education or opportunity.  Aunt Linda still has no desire to learn to read, and Uncle Daniel is content with living on his land and remaining as he is.  Strikingly different is the meeting later in the novel, attended by the black intellectual group – in which they have a high-minded debate on the future of their race and how to obtain recognition, equality, and stature in society.  It is noteworthy that Robert Johnson is present at both meetings, being established by Harper as someone who can cross over and move easily between both black classes and cultures.  This is yet another element of Harper’s to demonstrate uplift.  In this meeting, characters such as Rev Carmicle and Lucille Delany emerge as black individuals (not of mixed-blood), who represent the uplift issue in a different light.  These are blacks who have progressed, have educations, and are the leading intellectuals of their race.  They represent the educated black perspective, and are necessary for their views on being black and desiring progress both individually and as an entire race.  The uplift theme is also relevant here because this type of character has no choice whether to live as black or white.  The color of their skin is not ambiguous, yet their aims are to lift up every member of their race to a higher standard.  Rev Carmicle does this by his Christian faith and reliance on such doctrine, as “the black pastor’s role is to advance the empowerment and liberation of the Black oppressed…” (Lobodziec 37) Miss Delaney uplifts by her involvement with schools and education.  The presence of these characters at such a meeting, in stark contrast to the meetings in the woods, shows how differently members of the same race view their situation.  The language used is completely different, as evidenced by Carmicle’s Christian admonition “…to help build up a new South, not on the shifting sands of policy and expediency, but on the broad basis of equal justice and universal freedom…” (226), and Uncle Daniel’s equally faith-based, “…I’se been a preachin’ dese thirty years, an’ you come yere a tellin’ me ‘bout studying yore ologies.  I larn’d my ‘ology at de foot ob de cross.  You bin dar?” (168).  These ultra-contrasting settings show readers how difficult a challenge racial uplifting was during this period of reconstruction.  While characters such as Iola, Robert, and Miss Delany work for the betterment of all blacks, there is a large group of the same who are very much content with being rooted right where they are.

Overall, Frances Harper uses several literary elements to illustrate racial uplifting in Iola Leroy.  She gives us strong, rounded characters who are moral and upright, and contrasts them with characters representative of the prejudiced aspects of society, such as Dr. Latimer and Alfred Lorraine.  Her use of dialect, from the uneducated mouth of Uncle Daniel to the intellectual orations of Rev Carmicle, flows to create an unmistakable wave of empowerment, progression, and evolution of the black race.  Because of this, a reader can trace the character evolution and see that uplifting is really happening.  There is irony in her work, as evidenced by Iola’s father’s attempt to shield her from the indecencies of a caste system, which ultimately failed her and sent her into slavery.  Symbolism is represented in the novel by Iola’s sister’s death, which symbolizes the end of the first half of Iola’s life – the half in which she lived as a white woman and defender of slavery, something completely different from the character we see at the novel’s conclusion.  As a black woman in the midst of one of the most challenging times in American history, Harper has credibility in writing about the uplift movement, and includes bits of Christianity, temperance, and feminism into the novel – all of which are themes that relate to the concept of racial uplifting during the late 19th century.  Interestingly, as much as Harper directly states her views and methods for uplifting, she does so by implication as well.  She implies by the presence of Dr. Gresham’s character and Iola’s refusal to marry him that, despite the best intentioned uplift methods, some prejudices will always be present.  Iola realized, as a black woman, that marriage to a white man would be too highly charged to be acceptable to society.  Implied themes such as this, along with speech patterns, important events throughout the story, and strong dialogue all work together to allow Harper’s novel to uplift the black race in virtually every aspect.  This is an honorable calling; to uplift, as Agnieszka Lobodziec eloquently surmises, “…Black middle class can and should respond to need through their performance, in providing uplifting employment and financial support, thereby demonstrating identification with the vision of the beloved Black community…”  (Lobodziec 47).  Frances Harper realized this need to uplift, and built a tremendously edifying work to serve as proof.

Works Cited

Christmann, James. “Raising Voices, Lifting Shadows: Competing Voice-Paradigms in Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy.” African American Review, Vol. 34 No. 1 Spring 2000: 5-18.

Harper, Frances E.W. Iola Leroy. Philadelphia: Garrigues Brothers , 1892.

Lobodziec, Agnieszka. “Theological Models of Black Middle-Class Performance in Toni Morrison’s Novels.” 2010: 32-52.


Racial Devaluation in Pudd’nhead Wilson

Realism:  Racial Devaluation in Pudd’nhead Wilson

Literary realism is, using its best and simplest definition, a technique in which writers use every-day life, not a “romanticized” version of life, as the background for their work.  Often depicting characters, setting, and theme in a stark matter-of-factness, realism became popularized during the period of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I.  Mark Twain is regarded as one of the most influential American realists because his novels contained strong and identifiable characters, offered unfiltered views into complex societal issues of the day, and did not pretend to portray a scenario or a culture in any light other than what was “real”.  Twain’s 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson takes a hard edge on the issues of race and slavery, using these strong characters and naked insight to illustrate the hypocrisy of both issues.  And in doing so, Twain hits his reader with the sturdy realization that these cultural elements (slavery and the social implications of race in general) exist to de-value certain human beings and deny them their individual liberties and freedoms.

In studying this particular novel, two main elements of literary realism comprise its analysis:  1) character and the development of character play a much more crucial role in Pudd’nhead than plot or action, and 2) by indirectly exposing the indecencies of slavery, Twain reveals the hypocrisy attached to it.  By interpreting these two elements and how they establish Twain’s commentary on slavery, we can gain a more complete understanding of race, its implications in 19th century America, and the social injustice it represented.

 In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain has created such buoyant characters as Roxy and Tom, and developed them to such an extent, that the story’s plot becomes merely an elemental and minor extension of the characters.  This is to say that the plot depends on and results from the “roundness” of their characters, especially given the fact that they are not 100% white – despite their outward appearance.  Of Roxy, Twain writes “…one sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show…her complexion was very fair” (Twain 12).  This is true even against the point of action in the novel.  For example, Tom’s behavior throughout, his significant personal traits – such as being a “bad baby”, a “usurper”, and “fractious and overbearing” (Twain 22-24) – all foreshadow his later actions as an adult.  They carry throughout the novel, much like Roxy’s maternal and sometimes selfish characteristics, which do more to create divisiveness in terms of race than they do to provide any positive results.  Even David Wilson’s character, the unwavering horizontal evenness of it, shows us much more than the plot does.  Despite the eventual change in the town’s perception of him (going in their eyes from a “dam fool” (Twain 9) to receiving a “deafening explosion of applause” (139) and the mayorship of the town), he remains the same entirely. 

The illustration here brings up this initial point:  How does the “element of character” trump that of action or plot in relation to the race issue?  Simply put, Twain introduces us to the idea that humans are a product of their environment much more than they are their biology.  The Driscolls are shown to be “respected, esteemed, and beloved” (Twain 7), while the non-white characters are given traits such as “meek” and “humble” (Twain 13).  Ambiguous patterns of speech and dialect are also assigned to the black characters; even in the case of the switched (and white) Chambers.  With him, despite his white biological heritage, he has every attribute of the slave (language, dress, social status, etc).  Such character development is important because it supersedes, or yet defines, why certain actions take place.  For example, Roxy switches the babies out of fear of being sold “down de river now” (Twain 19).  A white character in the same time and place would not have these same fears.  To contrast, Tom grows up in a life of privilege and honor – not because of his blood (which is 1/32 black – but because he is the perceived heir to the Driscoll fortune.  Nothing portrays his blackness to the town, which is yet another way Twain establishes the marked differences between the races in 1850 Missouri.  To be black in this culture was to be denigrated, glory-less, and a “nigger”  (Twain 27). 

As the plot progresses, and the eventual secret of the boys’ races is revealed, an analytical reader will notice that without the racial aspect of the story, the plot wouldn’t hold up as interesting prose.  Here it is also important to note that neither of the black characters in the novel is 100% black.  As a matter of fact, they both look white (each having only a fraction of black blood in them), which makes this social division stand out even greater against the culture of the day.  In other words, from Dawson’s Landing’s point of view, despite their outer white appearance, they must be treated in the exact same segregated manner that a person of complete “blackness” must be treated.  As Harryette Mullen points out in her essay Optic White:  Blackness and the Production of Whiteness, “…whiteness is produced through the operation of marginalizing blackness (Mullen 74).  This is very much the case in Twain’s commentary; as the town, its prominent citizens, and even the slave characters are part of (in Mullen’s words), “…a race-class-gender system that inexorably reduces individuals to their functions within an economic mode of production (Mullen 71-72). 

In terms of how Twain used Pudd’nhead as an indictment of slavery and its flaws, there are several themes running through the novel that point to this.  His use of irony, for example, in how Roxy deals with “protecting” her son, is a strong illustration.  Despite her best efforts, well-laid plans, and careful maneuvering, the culture of the time still wins out.  Tom is still “sold down de river” in the end, and denied by the town-folk because of his fractious blackness.  It mattered not to them that his biological father was the esteemed Cecil Burleigh Essex of the “highest quality” (Twain 55).  This example is perhaps irony at its best:  the depiction of a willful and determined attempt (Roxy’s switching of the infants) to rise above what is granted an individual by birth.  From a reciprocal standpoint, her attempt doomed the rightful heir to a station in life below his birthright.  This in itself shows the extreme dichotomy race represented in this era.  As Twain introduces us to the Italian twins, we once again see the town’s perception that the brothers are property, squelching the ideal of liberty:  “…Italians, how romantic…and they’re all ours!” (Twain 33).  Their inclusion in the narrative serves to show that injustice and certain prejudices were evident in all aspects of life at this particular time and place.  That Luigi Capello was found innocent of murder (despite initial perceptions) reinforces the realistic element of hypocrisy being exposed. 

Another example of how Twain indicts the establishment of slavery is found in the title character of David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson.  Perhaps it does not reconcile itself perfectly in the slavery debate, but his part in the story reveals societal prejudices and how they can “label” an individual despite what is true.  As the novel climaxes with Wilson’s triumph and election as the town’s mayor, we are reminded that he was written off by the citizens 25 years earlier as the most “downrightest fool in the world (Twain 8).  His character shows us that a person can, and often does, vertically progress up the ladder of social standing.  To the slaves of that era, this was an impossible progression, their fate being decided by the mere color of their skin and their “misfortune” of it being dark.  Wilson also represents the element characterized in realist literature of human beings controlling their own destiny.  As mentioned before, his character remained true to himself the entire story, and even though it took 25 years for society to realize his un-Pudd’nhead-like qualities, the truth eventually was revealed.  The hypocrisy here should reveal itself plainly, and Twain’s mastery at character development illustrates it well.  David Wilson represents the initial narrow-mindedness of the era, and the fact that everything is not as it seems on the outer surface.  As Twain provides this descriptive piece of prose “…for all his (Wilson’s) sentences were golden now, all were marvelous…he was a made man for good” (Twain 143), we see the turn-around in perception, the realistic aspect that the truth will come out, and the illustration that discrimination of any kind is undesirable and must be eradicated.

To conclude a study such as this is to reveal a number of things that tie in specifically with the racial overtones of Pudd’nhead Wilson.  It is indeed a “stinging indictment of a legal tradition (slavery)” (Mullen 71), one represented with strong, round characters which shape the novel in spite of plot.  In any discussion of the question as to how the realist Twain exposes this injustice, we are reminded of the concept of ideology; one that Barbara Fields encapsulates in her essay Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.  Fields writes, and this is as relevant to the study of Pudd’nhead as anything so far in terms of context, that “…ideology is impossible for anyone to analyze rationally who remains trapped on its terrain” (Fields 100).  The citizens and culture of Dawson’s Landing were trapped in this terrain, partly because of what Mullen called the “legal tradition” mentioned earlier, but also in part because of their racial ignorance and intemperance.  Thus, Twain’s commentary and exposition of slavery and all of its ugliness is complete.  His main characters, by no means black in appearance, are developed to illustrate the deep racism that existed in the mid-19th century.  By using the realist elements of this character development and his indirect “shots” at what was considered status quo, Twain created a work that some claim to be his first “real” novel, and one in which the slavery as a “flawed construct of culture” is laid bare.  Fields perhaps balances the entire race debate with this well versed explanation – “…although it is now frowned upon to attribute biological disability to those designated to be a race, it is eminently fashionable to attribute biological disability…to those demonstrated to be racists” (Fields 117).  In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain rips into the establishment of slavery, and writes a relevant novel pointing out its injustices, social mutations, and its lasting implications.

Works Cited

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review May/June 1990: 95-118.

Mullen, Harryette. “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness.” diacritics Summer-Fall 1994: 71-89.

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Other Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.