115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Iola Leroy: Sentimentalism and Subversion in the Reconstruction Era

Kalei Wang, University of Hawaii, Manoa

While Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, has been critiqued for supporting hegemonic societal values, I argue that it addresses important concerns of the late nineteenth century in a subversive way, emphasizing the agency and ability of black Americans to build a life for themselves in the midst of the prejudice, violence, and instability of the Reconstruction era. 


Reading Iola Leroy as having political and rhetorical potential, I contend that Harper works to erode common misconceptions about antebellum race relations in order to show that the black community is, in fact, better off free, despite the obstacles they face. From the first lines of the book, a coded exchange between two slaves on neighboring plantations, Harper reveals the daily subterfuge in a slave’s life, which works to push back against the romanticized and nostalgic narratives of slave-master relationship. I argue that the masked interactions between slaves and their masters in the opening chapters of Iola Leroy can be viewed as tactics common to the slave experience, using James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance to analyze the subversive quality of Harper’s dialogue.While not overlooking Harper’s questionable investment in white bourgeois values, I argue that her focus on the moral and intellectual ability of the black community works rhetorically to further her goal of decreasing racism among her white readers, while simultaneously targeting a black audience, speaking to the need for collective solidarity. Iola herself, as a sentimental heroine, upholds dominant cultural values by embodying white American feminine virtues, yet because of her strength and determination to aid her race, as well as her pursuit of employment, she can be read as acknowledging and accentuating the strength, virtue, and capabilities of African American women. Furthermore, I argue that Harper uses romance as a mere vehicle for her political aims. Although critics see Iola’s marriage to Dr. Latimer as being merely stereotypical, the foundation of their love is based on their mutual desire for racial uplift, and the vision of work that this marriage provides is vastly different than Dr. Gresham’s proposal, which is rooted in bourgeois societal values. While critics have also found Harper’s mixed-race characters’ choice to self-segregate problematic, I read their decision as a way that black community and African American identity is affirmed. Lastly, in analyzing the politics of the sentimental genre, I argue that Iola Leroy, while essentializing race, erodes the boundaries between the reader and the character, transforming the novel into a pedagogical moment where the emotions and feelings of the subject are shared by the reader, enabling a breakdown of racial boundaries. Harper harnesses the immense cultural force of sentimental fiction in order to establish Iola as a sympathetic character, blurring the boundaries of race through the emotional connection that she attempts to create between her characters and the reader. Harper’s mobilization of Iola’s traumatic personal experiences throughout the novel to elicit sympathy from a sentimental reader emphasizes and highlights the issues of racism and prejudice that even an apparently worthy and virtuous woman could not escape. This book, while full of sermonizing and sentimental discourse, obviously, and more covertly, speaks to the need for African American solidarity and harmony in the efforts to stem racism and encourage African Americans to pursue life on their own terms.