Forgotten Readers

Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies

Forgotten Readers

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 440 Illustrations: 4 b&w photos Published: October 2002

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Over the past decade the popularity of black writers including E. Lynn Harris and Terry McMillan has been hailed as an indication that an active African American reading public has come into being. Yet this is not a new trend; there is a vibrant history of African American literacy, literary associations, and book clubs. Forgotten Readers reveals that neglected past, looking at the reading practices of free blacks in the antebellum north and among African Americans following the Civil War. It places the black upper and middle classes within American literary history, illustrating how they used reading and literary conversation as a means to assert their civic identities and intervene in the political and literary cultures of the United States from which they were otherwise excluded.

Forgotten Readers expands our definition of literacy and urges us to think of literature as broadly as it was conceived of in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth McHenry delves into archival sources, including the records of past literary societies and the unpublished writings of their members. She examines particular literary associations, including the Saturday Nighters of Washington, D.C., whose members included Jean Toomer and Georgia Douglas Johnson. She shows how black literary societies developed, their relationship to the black press, and the ways that African American women’s clubs—which flourished during the 1890s—encouraged literary activity. In an epilogue, McHenry connects this rich tradition of African American interest in books, reading, and literary conversation to contemporary literary phenomena such as Oprah Winfrey’s book club.


Forgotten Reader appears to be an apt title for Elizabeth McHenry’s in-depth and indecisive account of the “historical invisibility of early nineteenth-century black readers and writers. . . . Overall, McHenry’s research proves influential in debunking the insidious assumptions about black illiteracy.” — Pamela R. Fletcher , XCP

“This book is for all those people who thought book clubs began with Oprah.” — Karla Holloway, News & Observer

"Forgotten Readers . . . requires us to dig beyond our predisposition of literature, to consider the tongues that authored black folks before the pen could write the story. . . . [T]he literary history of black Americans is more triumphant than the words amassed on the page. And with the information McHenry documents, if black folks don’t take the time to crack a book, it really ain’t no laughing matter." — Hettie Adell , Independent Weekly

"Forgotten Readers is an exemplary work of painstaking scholarship. McHenry's prose is elegant and superbly readable; her nuanced handling of evidence is exceptionally persuasive. The book is required reading for scholars and students who wish to deepen their knowledge of literacy and African American literature, because it is an excellent site of reconceptualizing what literary history should tell us about the United States." — Jerry W. Ward , American Studies

"Forgotten Readers is that rare breed of book that both opens new avenues of scholarship and that your mother . . . will want to devour and then discuss with her mother and friends. . . . Like my best friend’s cooking or a can’t-put-it-down novel, Forgotten Readers leaves me both satisfied and wanting more. . . . McHenry brings African American literary studies into an exciting conversation about the inter-relation between writing, reading, authorship and publishing. Forgotten Readers is a signal contribution to nineteenth-century literary history, as enjoyable as it is important." — Gabrielle Foreman , Women's Review of Books

"Forgotten Readers makes an insightful case for valuing the activities of groups such as the African-American Female Intelligence Association, according to its founders' sense of the possible, and for spending time scrutinizing Oprah Winfrey's much-maligned Book Club. . . . Would that more first books were as weighty and bountiful!" — Barbara Ryan, H-Net Reviews

"Forgotten Readers shows that the African-American literary past that we tend to think of as recently rediscovered has been lost and found more than once. . . . Forgotten Readers makes the point that so much emphasis has been placed on the importance of oral culture in black life that we forget how much learning to read and write meant to black people, how they longed to appear as themselves in American literature." — Darryl Pinckney , New York Review of Books

"Forgotten Readers stands as a self-contained repository, an essential sourcebook for classroom and library use, and a thorough and far-reaching study on the formation and development of nineteenth-century black reading societies." — Helena Woodard , Libraries and Culture

"[A] remarkable piece of literary historical recovery. . . . Many readers are likely unaware that such societies even existed before the Civil War, and those who know of them may be surprised that documents still exist in quantities sufficient to allow study. McHenry deserves great praise for her detective work." — Erik Bledsoe , Foreword Reviews

"[A]n interesting narrative that judiciously intertwines cultural criticism with historical facts, all while remaining unbiased towards her middle- and upper-class subjects. . . . I highly recommend Elizabeth McHenry's Forgotten Readers because it illuminates the innovation it took to 'uplift the race' through informal basic literacy instruction." — Sherita Johnson , Studies in American Fiction

"[M]eticulously researched. . . . Forgotten Readers makes a compelling case for recognizing the role that literary societies played in fostering and mediating the diversity of opinions held by African Americans." — Xiomara A. Santamarina , Anthropology of Education Quarterly

"[McHenry] . . . provides valuable information. . . . Including significant notes and bibliography, this helpful book deals with a period and subject that heretofore received little attention because of the paucity of records. . . . Recommended." — B. Taylor-Thompson , Choice

"[O]ne of those important books that instructs scholars in a number of different fields. . . . [A] book a great many scholars will want on their shelves. . . . Forgotten Readers stands as a testament to the power of black literary traditions." — Richard S. Newman, New England Quarterly

"Elizabeth McHenry has provided a valuable corrective to our assumptions about early African American culture by demonstrating the existence of a small but important literate black community that was engaged not only in absorbing the texts of European cultures but also in asserting the rights of African Americans to be full participants in the life of the nation." — Keith E. Byerman , Journal of American History

"Elizabeth McHenry offer[s] new additions to History of the Book studies. . . . [This book is a] model of the vivid scholarship that emerges when the tools of social and cultural history are brought to bear on literary studies. . . . Cultural historians, particularly those who study educational history, and literary theorists will find much to engage in [this book] that expands our understanding of literacy, literature, readers, and the uses of reading." — Karen L. Graves, History of Education Quarterly

"Elizabeth McHenry performs the invaluable service of showing how large numbers of African Americans, members of various literary societies and clubs, have actively interacted with print over the last 175 years. . . . [A] very important contribution to American print history, one upon which I hope many future scholars will build." — Charles Johanningsmeier , SHARP News

"Elizabeth McHenry's book on the history of African-American literary societies has been eagerly anticipated by those of us who have read her articles or heard her conference presentations. . . . McHenry is a literary scholar, but her study will appeal to those in many fields. For historians of rhetoric; teachers of writing; scholars interested in questions about access and agency in the formation of public spheres; and those considering the relationships among literacy, persuasion, and power, Forgotten Readers will expand and challenge conventional approaches and perspectives. . . . [H]er analysis [is] infused with excitement and potential."- — Jacqueline Bacon , Rhetoric Society Quarterly

"Elizabeth McHenry's Forgotten Readers does exactly what literary and historical scholarship should do: it draws upon foundational scholarship, redresses limitations of current scholarship, explores vital new questions within the field, and opens up fascinating new terrain for scholarly inquiry. . . . [C]ompelling. . . . McHenry's book is simply superb." — Heidi L.M. Jacobs, College Literature

"Elizabeth McHenry's study of African American literary societies illuminates the political function of these societies within the black community. . . . [A] multilayered and creatively written work." — Lisa Y. King , Journal of Southern History

"Elizabeth's McHenry's Forgotten Readers recovers free African American readers (primarily in the North) who participated in literary societies as both readers and producers of texts, challenging models of African American literary history that finds origins in the "stolen" literacy of slaves in the South and in the slave narrative as a genre." — Melissa J. Homestead, American Literature

"One of the strengths of McHenry's book is that she places the pursuit of literacy within the contexts of the literary institutions that shape literacies and their practices." — Susan Alice Fischer, Changing English

"Studies like McHenry's that allow the voices of the 'forgotten' to attest to the importance of print and reading in building cultural identity will enlighten and hearten those involved in such professional conversations." — Christine Pawley , Library Quarterly

"The historiography of Forgotten Readers is unassailable, a major achievement in archival research that makes an impressive case for the 'lost history' of early black readers. McHenry writes persuasively that the history has been lost because it has been ignored by scholars who have preferred the sexier topic of slavery. . . . [I]nspired brilliance and consummate authority."- — Joycelyn Moody, MLQ

"The key to understanding the impact of Forgotten Readers lies in understanding the tremendous importance of documenting literacy and literary activity within the black community. . . . This discussion of black literary societies-as designed not only to support audiences but also to aid the development of black literary artists-brings Forgotten Readers full circle and aptly illustrates the influence black reading practices have had on African-American literature's development. . . . [McHenry] has made a tremendous contribution to the fields of American and African-American literary theory and history, transforming the way we think about African-American engagement with literature." — Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire

"What McHenry shows, with impressive research and striking sympathy, is a vibrant and durable network of urban publications and organizations through which black intellectuals insisted upon the value first of literacy and then, crucially, of literature." — David Henkin , American Historical Review

Forgotten Readers focuses upon an aspect of African American culture that was extraordinarily significant in the development of its literary tradition and in its political and social development as well, but one that, as Elizabeth McHenry notes, has been ignored or simplistically described. This book will be instrumental in challenging and changing some erroneous notions about African American history and literature specifically, and American culture in general.” — Frances Smith Foster, Emory University

“Elizabeth McHenry’s Forgotten Readers is a seminal study of the pivotal role that literary societies played in the shaping of African American culture in the nineteenth century. While many scholars knew of the existence of these societies, most of us had presumed their records to be lost or nonexistent. Through meticulous research, McHenry has managed to reconstruct the nature and function of these curious arenas of literary culture in splendid detail. The study is a major contribution to the history of literacy in the African American community. No scholar or student can understand nineteenth-century African American literary history without reading this book.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Elizabeth McHenry is Assistant Professor of English at New York University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: In Search of Black Readers 1

1 "Dreaded Eloquence": The Origins and Rise of African American Literary Societies 23

2 Spreading the Word: The Cultural Work of the Black Press 84

3 Literary Coalitions in the Age of Washington 141

4 Reading, Writing, and Reform in the Woman's Era 187

5 Georgia Douglas Johnson and the Saturday Nighters 251

Epilogue: Building Community in Contemporary Reading Groups 297

Notes 317

Bibliography 387

Index 401
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2003 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award for Nonfiction

Winner, 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award

Winner, 2003 Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, & Publishing Book History Prize

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2995-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2980-0
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