New Edition of Antebellum Novel Explores Race Relations in the North

the-gariesby ECW Correspondent Amelia Kibbe

Megan Walsh first read Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends while riding the transportation system in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the setting for Webb’s 1857 work. As she traveled the streets just blocks away from the described location of the Garie family home, Walsh became fascinated with the novel.

Walsh, currently an associate professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, worked at the time at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She told her friend and colleague William Hunting Howell about her experience with the novel and, she said, they agreed the piece reshaped their understanding of antebellum African American literature.

The novel follows the events of two Philadelphia families—the Garies and the Ellises, as well as a large number of minor characters. The Garies, a wealthy, mixed race family, move from the South at the beginning of the novel, hoping to find acceptance in the free northern city of Philadelphia. Their new friends, the Ellises, are respectable members of the city’s working class. Both families struggle to find a sense of belonging in the heavily racist system.

“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.”

Walsh and Howell, an associate professor of English at Boston University, decided to edit an edition of The Garies and Their Friends with Broadview Press, a Canadian publishing company. They hoped, Walsh said, to encourage scholars, teachers, and students to read a novel that offers a “fundamentally overlooked” aspect of the country’s history—race relations in the American North.

“Despite its cultural significance and its narrative richness . . . the novel is familiar almost exclusively to scholars working in the sub-field of nineteenth-century African American literature,” she said, adding she would like to see the work become more regularly taught in college classrooms.

So, once the two had a deal with Broadview, Walsh said she taught the novel in her classes during 2012 and 2013 at St. Bonaventure—located in southwestern New York—to gain insight from her students.

Assigning the novel alongside well-recognized texts, including Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she then listened to the students’ feedback to her shape ideas for footnotes and supplemental materials that she wanted to include in her and Howell’s edition, which was published last April.

“Our edition stabilizes and annotates the text; offers an accessible and scholarly introduction; provides a comprehensive bibliography of further reading; provides significant supplemental material, including contemporary reviews, legal documents and other information,” Walsh said.

In the 2016-17 academic year, Walsh will teach her and Howell’s version of the novel in two of her classes, the American Novel to 1865 and American Literature of the Nineteenth Century. Additionally, she continues to work on an article about Webb’s novel, and she recently presented about it at the Modern Language Association conference and the Northeast Modern Language Association conference.

“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.”

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