Eric Gardner is Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University. This interview is based on his most recent book, Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (Oxford UP, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Black Print Unbound?
EG: Most immediately, writing a chapter on the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper for my last book—Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (UP of Mississippi, 2009)—confirmed my sense that there were several books that needed to be written about the Christian Recorder. For a host of reasons, I’m convinced that it was the single most important Black periodical in the nineteenth century, and its amazing stories—stories that can aid students of literature, culture, history, faith, and activism—have barely begun to be told. I wanted to focus on the years during and just after the Civil War because most histories of Civil War print culture (especially literature) are lily white, and much work on nineteenth-century African American literature deemphasizes or even skips over the War and Reconstruction, to say nothing of Black periodicals and/or Black church print.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Print Unbound?
EG: While filled with specific arguments on diverse texts, individuals, and events, Black Print Unbound’s larger argument is that the Christian Recorder in specific and both faith-centered structures and Black periodicals more generally represented critical modes for African Americans to insert themselves in an often-hostile American print culture. Black Print Unbound is thus both a call to and an example of the ways in which we might rethink American literary history to make room for voices, genres, and print venues that have been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, and willfully erased.
JF: Why do we need to read Black Print Unbound?
EG: As a study of a periodical of national reach among free African Americans, Black Print Unbound is at once a massive recovery effort of a publication by African Americans for African Americans, a consideration of the nexus of African Americanist inquiry and print culture studies, and an intervention in the study of literatures of the Civil War, faith communities, and periodicals. At its most basic and as one of the fullest studies of an early Black periodical done to date, it shares information on a massive number of authors, texts, editors, and print processes that have much to say to our current moment and are ripe for further study. The book also offers the most in-depth study of early Black periodicals subscribers (and likely readers) in existence—and does so in a way that attends to both broad demographic trends and the stories of several individuals. The book pairs this kind of rich cultural and material history with close analysis of diverse and often unknown texts that were crucial to the development of African American literature and culture and that challenge our senses of genre, authorship, and community.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EG: This is a tough question, as my degrees, disciplinary home, and teaching are all in literary studies. But, if pressed, I’d say gradually and partially in answer to the first part of the question and out of both love and necessity to the second. I came to literary studies in large part because of a fascination with the past and with the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about our pasts. The more I moved toward an emphasis on early Black print culture, the more I understood that careful historical work was and would be simply essential in helping correct the myriad misconceptions surrounding African Americans and print in the nineteenth century. I spent a long time early in my career simply learning more, engaging with historians and cross-disciplinary scholars, immersing myself in archival work, learning to appreciate the craft of history more fully, and thinking about its intersections with literary scholarship. When I call myself by the old-school term “literary historian,” I thus try to invoke the dance of disciplines and the necessity of dialogic approaches to our work.
JF: What is your next project?
EG: Another tough question, because there is so much work to do. I’m currently engaged with three large projects: a study of the early Black press in San Francisco, further consideration of the Recorder during the editorial term of Benjamin Tucker Tanner (a kind of sequel to Black Print Unbound, if you will), and more in-depth study of women writers connected to church print (especially Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but also Edmonia Goodelle Highgate and a range of other folks). You’ll also soon see publication of a special issue of the journal American Periodicalsfocused on Black periodical studies that I co-edited with Joycelyn Moody.
JF: Thanks, Eric!