Teaching Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves

Dr. Heather Fox & Jason Richards
University of South Florida

In Spring 2018, I taught Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves and Johanna Ortner’s essay about its recovery, “Lost No More” (Common-place, 2015), in a course called “Reform and Recovery in American Women’s Literature.” This course, listed through the English department and cross-listed in the Women’s and Gender Studies department, was comprised of interdisciplinary and English Education students. I viewed this student population as an opportunity to both engage non-majors in literary recovery projects and to work with pre-service high school English teachers, who will be teaching future generations of students. Most students were unfamiliar with the writers we studied, and the following questions guided the inquiry of our course: What can we learn about America’s literary history by recovering writers who were once (or continue to be) excluded from its canon? How did the writers in our course engage social reform through their work, and how might we use these lessons to cultivate awareness about their contributions and the importance of ongoing recovery projects?

Students completed archival research projects alongside primary and secondary readings to examine the historical, social, political, and cultural contexts that both enabled and inhibited women writers between the 1600s and late 1800s. In preparation for multiple class discussions about Forest Leaves, students completed individual reading responses that focused on one poem and worked in groups to complete a “praxis,” or heuristic designed to contemplate the breadth of Harper’s work in the collection and to provide one pedagogical approach to teaching poetry. Jason Richards, an English Education major, reflected on this experience:

What were your observations about “Haman and Mordecai,” the poem that you chose for your reading response?

By placing emphasis on the emotional state of Haman when he sees Mordecai, “Haman and Mordecai” criticizes the subordination of one human by another human through the viewpoint of the human in power. From the first quatrain of the poem, Haman is depicted as someone who defers to no one, as the “vassal round him bow’d” indicates a power over other people that he expects (2). He ignores “the crowd,” which gives him the praise and fealty that he is accustomed to seeing and focuses only on the person who is challenging his power (4). His disinterest in the crowd in comparison to the slight against his power is indicative of his interest in maintaining the power he has over other people as a priority, along with maintenance of the power structure that keeps him above those people. Haman’s desperation to maintain complete control over others is always described in terms that imply a loss of emotional control, specifically regarding his bosom shaking “with rage and scorn” and his “angry eye” when looking at Mordecai (7, 14). The loss of control in this situation is an illustration of how power has corrupted Haman, since he perceives the standing Mordecai as a perilous threat to the power that he wields. When Haman chooses to punish the entire Jewish population for Mordecai’s actions, he is thought of as a tragic villain by the speaker. While the speaker emphasizes the loss of emotional control again by describing Haman as being “full of pride and wrath,” Haman’s choice of action is considered by the speaker to be his “fell purpose” (22). In the eyes of the speaker, Haman’s loss of emotional control leads to a destructive choice formed through the power that he has been given, and eventually leads to his doom, as “Haman met the fate / He’d for Mordecai decreed” at the conclusion of the poem (33,34). In his efforts to preserve his position of dominance over others, Haman became an example of how the use of power for subordination corrupts and destroys those who wield power to that end.

What stood out as a connecting theme (or themes) in discussions surrounding the collection?

While religion was certainly the focal point of the discussion, my personal reaction was that the religious themes were at least supplemented by the theme of subordination. While many would take this as slavery, the lack of explicit messaging in the writing renders subordination a more accurate descriptor. As I stated in my reading response, subordination within religion was found even in poems that simply retold events from the Bible. The other theme I found on a regular basis came from judgment in the context of religion, especially when condemning the behavior or actions of others by the speaker. Throughout the poems, there was an undercurrent of belief that God would judge those who did harm, with subordination as the focal point. The way that this judgment is framed throughout Forest Leaves results in a criticism of religious structures of the time, while also making the speaker capable of exercising power over their own spiritual nature. Forest Leaves was often speaking through religion without specifying race. While a few poems did discuss race in a direct manner, the majority of the poems did not. The intention of this change is connected to the use of religion as a defense of slavery, with implicit parallels being drawn between the themes of subordination to slavery while questioning the support for slavery in religious circles using the figures and symbols found within those same religious circles.