Elizabeth McHenry (NYU), "'Utterly Worthless'?: Race Publishing, Subscription Books and Black Communities"
Monday, November 1, 2021, 5:15pm, in person and via Zoom*
*For Zoom information, please please contact Aylin Malcolm.
Our speaker writes:
At the center of my talk is an interest in movement: the movement of African American learners after the Civil War, from basic literacy to a more sophisticated understanding of the value of the literary, and the movement of sites of Black study, from the schoolhouse to the book. I trace this movement through a specific kind of book: those sold by subscription in Black communities at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. With titles like Progress of a Race and A New Negro for a New Century, these books are among the most critically disregarded, considered poorly-packaged and inferior literature in their own time and our own. In recognizing them, I make visible not only a curriculum of study that circulated within African American homes and local communities rather than primary schools or institutions of industrial or college education, but also a readership and modes of authorship that literary history does not adequately recognize. In my talk I will reflect on the materials that informed my study and speak to my own process of piecing together the importance of subscription publishing to our understanding of African American literary culture. I’ll also consider how a study of subscription publishing fits into my larger project on the unsettledness of Black literary culture around the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a moment when African American intellectuals sought to define and structure “Negro literature” and establish its readership.
About our speaker:
Elizabeth McHenry is Professor and Chair of the English Department at New York University. Her research and teaching are focused on African American literature and the various histories of Black print culture, particularly in the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. She is the author of Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Duke UP, 2002), which explores the long history of African Americans as readers in the context of their organized literary practices. Her most recent book, To Make Negro Literature: Writing, Literary Practice, and African American Authorship (Duke UP, 2021), returns again to the archives of Black literature to examine a variety of projects and conditions of authorship that have been dismissed or gone largely unnoticed in traditional accounts of African American literary history. She is currently at work on a project that aims to uncover the work of Black job printers in the production and distribution of African American literature and the extension of Black literary culture.
Talks will be held live, in person, in the Class of 78 Pavilion, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. They will also be available via Zoom (please contact us for details). All are welcome. If you would like to receive details on future talks, please sign up for our listserv using this link or visit the Workshop website.
The Workshop in the History of Material Texts is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences through the Department of English and hosted by the Penn Libraries. The co-directors of the seminar are Professor Zachary Lesser (English), Jerry Singerman (Penn Press, Emeritus), and John Pollack (Kislak Center, Penn Libraries).
Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.
For more information, please contact Aylin Malcolm.