ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Susan L. Roberson
"Ellen Montgomery's Other Friend: Race Relations in an Expunged Episode of Warner's Wide, Wide, World"
When Susan Warner was staying with her publisher, George Putnam, readying her first novel, The Wide, Wide World, for publication, she apparently was asked to pare down her rather long story. A significant problem from Putnam's point of view was the novel's length, and part of Warner's task as she was correcting proofs was to trim where she could. Several of the sections that Warner cut comprised an early episode about a character she refers to as a "little black girl."
That Warner initially wrote an episode that involved her heroine, Ellen Montgomery, with an African American child and then expunged it provides us with some new ways of thinking about Warner's project in writing her novel. While critics and readers have generally focused on the novel's sentimentality and the Christian ethos it portrays and advocates, attention to the omitted sections widens our understanding of Warner's undertaking, suggesting that she was concerned about the condition of black people in America in 1848, when she began to write her novel, even if ambivalently. Ellen's encounters with the African American child imply the possibilities for spatial and social relations when boundaries between the races become more porous--when a little white girl and a little black girl can meet and begin a friendship, if only for a chapter or two. The episode, which occurs in New York City in both public and private settings, raises not only geographic and racial but also feminist issues, providing a subtext for the published version of the novel. Questions about race and about the appropriation of black characters that emerge in the expunged sections and related questions about autonomy and freedom that persist in the published version ask us to read the novel from a broader perspective than we have before--to see Warner's racial politics as crucial to understanding her attitude toward Ellen's, and women's, position in antebellum America. But Warner's erasure of the one episode that explicitly foregrounds race also asks us to place her among the white writers whom Toni Morrison criticizes, those who contemplate their own condition through the figure of the invisible African and yet leave most dimensions of the nation's unjust race relations "'unspoken.'"