Dr. Megan Walsh had a novel idea: breathe new life into one of the most neglected but important works of fiction of the 19th century.
With insights she gleaned from St. Bonaventure students by first teaching the novel in 2012, Walsh — along with William Huntting Howell of Boston University — has released a new critical edition of Frank J. Webb’s 1857 novel “The Garies and Their Friends.”
Published by Broadview Press, the Walsh/Howell edition provides new information and increased accessibility to Webb’s novel, one of the earliest novels by a black American author.
“This is an outstanding edition of Webb’s powerful novel about the struggles of the free black community in pre-Civil War Philadelphia,” said Robert S. Levine, professor at the University of Maryland and author of “The Lives of Frederick Douglass.”
“They provide reviews, new information about Webb, and compelling contextual materials that help us to better understand the novel in relation to key legal and social contexts. Webb has been wonderfully served by Howell and Walsh. I couldn’t imagine teaching any other edition, and the excellence of this edition should help to bring new readers to ‘The Garies,’” Levine said.
The novel tells the story of two families struggling for different sorts of respectability: the Garies, a well-to-do interracial couple who relocate to Philadelphia from the plantation South in order to legalize their marriage; and their friends the Ellises, free black Philadelphians hoping to make the move from the working class into the bourgeoisie.
Along with a large cast of supporting characters, the members of the Garie and Ellis families strive to find stability within a profoundly racist system. Despite living and working in the free city of Philadelphia, these characters experience the many nuanced ways that social prejudice wrought havoc on black people’s lives throughout the antebellum United States.
“Once we signed the contract with Broadview, I began thinking about how ‘The Garies’ would work in my classroom here at Bonaventure. The first thing I did was to assign it,” Walsh said.
Walsh first taught the novel in American Literature of the Nineteenth Century (ENG 572), positioning it alongside a number of more familiar novels like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“I was interested to see how students reacted to the novel when read next to these ‘classics.’ Like me, they were stunned that ‘The Garies’ isn’t regularly taught,” Walsh said. “I also invited them to tell me what they would like to see in a new edition. They gave me some real insights into how footnotes and supplemental material shape the student reading experience.”
Walsh also used the book in a graduate English class on African-American literature she taught in spring 2013. Students wrote their own introductions and bibliographies for texts that are not in print, but are accessible now through the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s “Documenting the American South” web project.
“My experience as editor of ‘The Garies’ has really broadened my use of archival materials in my classes here at Bonaventure,” she said. “Though we are geographically distant from early American special collections libraries, a number of new digital initiatives enable students in my classes to experience the same pleasures and rewards that I do as an editor working with an overlooked text from the past.”
This academic year, Walsh will twice get to teach from her own edition of “The Garies” — American Novel to 1865 (ENG 375); and again in American Literature of the Nineteenth Century (ENG 572).
Walsh has presented at the Modern Language Association conference and the Northeast Modern Language Association conference about “The Garies,” and she’s finishing an academic article on it.
“In teaching it again now that we’ve completed the project, I’ll be able to provide my students with more information and depth,” Walsh said. “I also hope that my students’ insights will shape my own writing on Webb’s work.”
Readers of “The Garies” will discover a unique portrait of black lives in mid-1800s America, said Walsh, who has taught English at the university since 2011.
“Webb’s work stood out for us because so often many Americans, including scholars, continue to imagine antebellum black experience primarily through the institution of southern slavery,” Walsh said.
“Webb’s novel debunks that understanding of the past by painting a portrait of middle-class and wealthy black Americans living in the free North. His depiction of black life likely drew on the vibrant middle-class black neighborhood in Philadelphia in which he lived for a while. The businesses in that community were vital to the city’s economic prosperity at that time.”
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