UMass Amherst Scholar’s Research Discovers Forgotten 19th-Century African-American Novelist Sarah E. Farro

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
Gerzina shares her discovery of "True Love," a long-forgotten 1891 novel written by African-American novelist Sarah E. Farro.

AMHERST, Mass. – A long-forgotten 1891 novel written by an African-American woman is challenging assumptions about black history and literature because her book was about white characters in England, according to Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, the Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Gerzina shared her discovery of Sarah E. Farro today during a presentation to the American Literature Association in San Francisco. An expert in Victorian literature, African-American literature and the story of black people in England, Gerzina learned about Farro and her novel, “True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life,” two years ago when she saw an announcement in an 1893 edition of London’s The Daily Telegraph proclaiming Farro to be “the first negro novelist.”

The identification of Farro makes her only the third known African-American woman novelist published in the 19th century and one of six known African-American published novelists in the entire century, according to Gerzina.

“I was astonished,” says Gerzina. “Who was this woman? Why do we not know about her groundbreaking novel?”

After tracking down the only two known copies of Farro’s novel, Gerzina realized that an unknown black novelist had made her mark writing about white people. “This may also be the reason that her work is now forgotten,” she says. “Ironically, at first celebrated and brought to public attention precisely because of her race, Farro does not fit the mold of familiar early African-American writers, revived and ‘discovered’ today not only because of their race, but because they wrote about race.”

Instead, Farro crafted a domestic romance that is somewhat melodramatic and set in England. The author betrayed her unfamiliarity with Britain by referring to dollars instead of pounds and mentioning a character who wishes to wed by Thanksgiving, says Gerzina. But Farro’s errors didn’t deter publishers as the book was published in England and Chicago.

Delving into the writer’s past, Gerzina learned that Farro was born in 1859 in Illinois to parents who were born in the South and lived in Chicago. “True Love” was one of 58 books by Illinois women writers exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exhibition fair in 1893. The book was heralded in newspapers in Britain and the U.S., but Farro’s race was only mentioned in some early newspaper articles and apparently never surfaced otherwise.

Farro’s work was influenced by her favorite novelists, Dickens, Thackeray and Holmes, says Gerzina, “writers of popular fiction admired by black and white readers.”

“‘True Love’ tells us that black women of her time read and discussed and emulated the works of people who were not like them,” she adds.

Farro apparently never wrote another novel, but in 1937 she was honored at a Chicago celebration of “outstanding race pioneers.” Her death date is unknown.

“True Love” captured the attention of readers and critics 125 years ago and now it’s time for the author’s achievements to be fully recognized, Gerzina says.

“Sarah Farro lived in the North through the end of slavery, preceded the Great Migration, published a novel as an American Victorian, and lived through and past the Harlem Renaissance. Surely those writers owe her a debt of gratitude, just as we have an obligation to bring her back into the fold of African-American and women novelists.”