SVSU English Professor Eric Gardner recently received his second National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to work on a year-long study in 2021.
Gardner earned his first NEH Fellowship in 2012. He published “Black Print Unbound: The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture” as a result of his research under NEH. The book went on to win several awards.
The grant is a multi-step process. Applicants must create a series of documents to submit to a panel of experts in the field, who then make recommendations, Gardner said.
Three other Michigan professors won the same grant.
“In the end, they usually fund about 7 or 8 percent,” Gardner said. “The magical thing about being funded here is because of that win, the fellowship monies will come to the university, and the university will allow me time to sit down and actually write that book.”
The grant will allow him to research and write a book on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th century writer, speaker and activist.
“She was amazing,” Gardner said.
“(She worked) as a lecturer but also wrote poems, novels and short stories. She was really deeply active in the struggle for civil rights, women’s suffrage, black suffrage and temperance,” Gardner said.
There are a lot of gaps in what is known about Harper’s life and career, especially near the Civil War and Reconstruction era, despite more interest in studying her the past several decades.
“The book will focus on her life and career during that period,” he said. Gardner said.
many people have not yet been exposed to the work and accomplishments of Harper, for various reasons.
“I think that gains some urgency when we recognize some of the reasons we don’t know her are tied to her race and gender, that she gets sort of written out of the tapestry of history and literature because she’s a black woman,” he said.
“The idea is that supposedly black women didn’t do these things,” he said. “They did – she did. She did them really well, and she did them in ways we probably ought to think about.”
Much of Harper’s work was published in newspapers, which makes it harder to track down. Some of it is on microfilm or digitized, but many of the newspapers were destroyed.
For instance, one of the novels she wrote in 1869, which was published in serialized style, is missing its most important chapter, Gardner said.
Another Harper novel, “Sowing and Reaping,” also was missing several chapters. Gardner found one through “better cataloging, knowing what to look for and having the time to look.”
Some of her poetry that was thought to be lost was recovered by a graduate student, so Gardner said he has hope that more of Harper’s lost works can and will be recovered.
“A lot of my work has been (expanding on that), so I’ve spent a lot of time developing an itinerary of what all her lectures dates were, so I know roughly where she was at any point between 1861 and 1880,” Gardner said.
He said he can do research in little chunks and set it aside to do other things but needs to set aside a lot of time for writing, which is why he applied to the NEH. Gardner said he believes his research could not happen without the NEH, as he would not be able to write and teach at the same time.
“It’s really cool that our government recognizes that you want to support that kind of work,” he said. “As writers – as scholars, generally – you need time. The process of writing and researching isn’t terribly expensive.”
Gardner teaches some of Harper’s work in his English 313 survey course, U.S. and British literature, 1865 to present.
“It changes the way that I do things in the classroom,” he said. “We talk about Frances Harper, and students raise all these good questions. I say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know the answers to a bunch of those. I have to go figure that out,’ because I want to be able to give my students some of that material and engage with it.”