Lapham’s Quarterly is running a series on the history of best sellers, exploring the circumstances that might inspire thousands to gravitate toward the same book and revisiting well-loved works from the past that, due to a variety of circumstances, vanished from the conversation after they peaked on the charts. We are also publishing a digital edition of one of these forgotten best sellers, Mary Augusta Ward’s 1903 novel Lady Rose’s Daughter, with a new introduction, annotations, and an appendix. To read more about the project and explore the other entries in the series, click here.
Juanita Harrison’s pungent travel memoir, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, was one of the best-selling books of 1936. Harrison, an African American woman who grew up poor in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow, left her home state at twenty-one to take a series of domestic-service jobs across the country. “I did what I wanted saved what I wanted and I traveled about from State to State City to City in the Union Canada and Cuba,” she recalled of her eighteen years of wandering across North America. In 1927 she took her travels to the next level, leaving Hoboken, New Jersey, for an eight-year around-the-world journey that took her through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, ending in Honolulu. She paid her way with intermittent work as a maid, cook, or nurse. At each destination she took the time to write closely detailed, vivid letters chronicling her observations and adventures—letters that later formed the book that made her a best-selling author. Aside from the book itself, what we know about Harrison’s life and authorship comes from a small handful of private papers, several newspaper features, and sundry public records.
The first entry of My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, describing the moment Harrison boarded the German ship that would take her to England, suggests her commitment to writing:
Our cabins looked good. I always want an upper berth I dont want anybody making it down on me. I went to the 1st and 2nd Class. their towels looked more linnen so I took two, the soap smelt sweeter so I took 2 cakes. I went up to the writing room and the paper was the kind you love to touch so I took much and tuked it away in my bunk.
Distracted by the idiosyncratic orthography and grammar, the reader might initially miss the creative richness of her prose. She manipulates language in unlikely ways, with her fused sentences often building toward climactic surprise endings.
I visited the Famous Painter Wiertz’s Musee the most and best of his pictures are such horrod thoughts.
We are now on the Sea or I do not know just how to say it as Holland are the Sea itself.
the Moon is bright and the houses on the many mountains seem to be touching the sky the snow covered mountains are like pearl just below my cottage are a floor of white Clouds. the darkness of the tall fir trees and tea plants on the mountain sides beside the snow white clouds far below are to wonderful. up and down are the thousand of light as this is a City above and below mountains and clouds the lights seem to mix with the stars.
Brimming with linguistic confidence, Harrison records another’s praise for her urgent emotional response to seeing the Taj Mahal. She opens by making the standard gesture of travelers confronted with the spectacular, claiming words fail her. Yet she continues, “As we left [my companion] asked me how it impressed me. the night was getting dark the dew was falling heavy and I said, ‘I would just like to put a glass over it I feel I must cover it over.’ He said, ‘That’s beautiful.’ ”
Harrison’s narrative was first serialized in two issues of The Atlantic Monthly prior to its release as a bound volume. While the text is edited to resemble a travel journal, with over two hundred entries chronicling Harrison’s experiences around the globe, her publishers did not hide its epistolary origins. Most of the original recipients of her effusive travel reports were upper-class white women who had once employed her. The book is dedicated to one of those correspondents, Myra K. Dickinson. Pioneering property developers of Southern California subdivisions, Myra and her husband, George, had employed Harrison as a maid in their Los Angeles household not long before her world journey began; they also helped her invest her savings. Addressing Myra in the dedication, Harrison insists, “Your great kindness to me have made my traveling much happier if You hadnt been interested in me I never would have tryed to explain my trips.” A 1931 letter to Alice Foster, an African American friend in California who had also emigrated from Mississippi, argues for a causal link between the Dickinsons’ effusive letters and her own.
They wrote sweet letters and at each place or Country that I had written to them I would likely be on arriving it would be like getting home as a kind letter would be there to greet me so it made me happy and love the Country and its People and so it made The People love me and that’s why there are in all of my letters which were sent to a Publisher in hopes that He will also for the joy that they express publish them.
Another former employer, the Morrises—an American family of former actors who had settled in Paris—helped Harrison find a public readership. Felix Morris had been a well-known character actor and vaudeville performer. His widow, Mary, was also an actor, while daughters Mildred and Felice had prominent juvenile roles in London and New York. In 1905 Mildred played Wendy in the very first Broadway season of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. By the time Harrison knew her she worked as a freelance reviewer of theater and opera.
In her book, Harrison recounts, “One of the Daughters is a writer and the mother said my travellers should be put into a Book. I told her I would come back after my trip to India and work for nothing if Miss Mildred, the Daughter would help me.” Several years later she did just that. After she lost her investments in the 1929 stock market crash, she had taken a job in the South of France but quit to rejoin the Morrises in Paris—this time as their guest—to begin assembling the text with “Miss Mildred.” It was likely Mildred Morris who brokered Harrison’s Atlantic contract.
The Morrises put Harrison up in a spacious apartment in their building for forty days, complete with breakfast, dinner, and a view of Notre-Dame. Harrison had written to distant friends requesting that they send back all the letters they had received from her, and together she and Morris edited and arranged them. In describing their working methods, Harrison noted that Morris became so absorbed in the project that “she could not do her other writing,” adding, “She said that I was a born writer. I thought how far I was from what I was born.” This is one of the few instances in which Harrison hints at the difficult conditions of her childhood.
On concluding her world journey, Harrison settled in Waikiki. Her Atlantic Monthly income was given over to a spacious custom-designed tent, which she erected in the front yard of a bungalow owned by a Japanese family, the Tadas. Her book was published soon afterward. Advertised as the “penetrating diary of an extraordinary colored woman” and directed at an assumed white readership, it sold so well as to go through nine printings in ten months. Harrison casually referred to it as a best seller, noting the many fan letters she received and the many autographs she signed. Yet despite enjoying the celebrity, she was ambivalent about authorship, concerned it might disrupt a “life plan” she once described as “all set up until I die.”
My Great, Wide, Beautiful World was reviewed by many prominent newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Saturday Review of Literature, and Time magazine. The prevailing tone was a blend of condescension and respect, as in Katherine Woods’ assessment in the New York Times, that “there is nothing on our shelves, certainly, that is quite like this spontaneous, shrewd, and unselfconscious story of the Odyssey of an American Negress.” With far less literary acuity and respect, a syndicated advice columnist described Harrison as “the ignorant Negro woman…who worked her way around the world by just being natural. She was neither overawed by the great and rich nor scornful of the poor and lowly.” Such reviews portray Harrison as naive and unschooled, and as a result able to enter into exotic and unknown locales more deeply than the familiar middle-class protagonists of more conventional travel narratives.
Harrison’s book was embraced by readers nationwide, including Black women and men who kept it perennially checked out of local libraries and white women in provincial cities such as Tampa, St. Cloud, and Bakersfield who selected it for their book clubs, often emphasizing its humor and entertainment value. Carl Van Vechten urged Langston Hughes and Gertrude Stein to read My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, and it inspired Era Bell Thompson, author of American Daughter and future longtime editor of Ebony magazine, to tour the American West. Others, however, including Harlem Renaissance writer and educator Alain Locke, were concerned that Harrison’s insouciant narrative persona might confirm racist stereotypes. In his roundup “Books by Negro Authors in 1936,” the white civil rights leader Arthur Spingarn wrote, “A radiant and valiant personality shines through the book, but though highly touted, it is likely to thrill only those people who know ‘colored people are like that.’ ” We have no record of Harrison’s response to these comments.
By the 1930s, as scholar Steven L. Driever notes, American travel books tended to focus on providing prospective travel itineraries. At the same time there was also a niche market for novelty travel books, including Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha, the fictional memoir of a hobo, and Around the World in Eleven Years, collaboratively written by twelve-year-old Patience Abbe and her younger brothers about their roving childhood in Europe. My Great, Wide, Beautiful World is, of course, another example. Yet a somewhat older and narrower trend is just as responsible for getting Harrison’s book into print: The Atlantic Monthly’s dedication to publishing the life narratives of writers who, from the perspective of its famously genteel readership, appeared to be “faraway women”—both geographically and socioeconomically. The magazine’s editor Ellery Sedgwick had a predilection for the true stories of working-class women with unorthodox lifestyles. In addition to Harrison, they include a child diarist in an Oregon logging community; homesteaders in Wyoming, Idaho, and Alberta; a fantasy novelist in British Columbia who wrote about her experiences in Japan, India, China, and Tibet; and a woman who walked through the mountains of northern Alabama to salvage her health. (My book Faraway Women and the Atlantic Monthly examines the phenomenon.)
Shortly after Harrison settled in Hawaii, Sedgwick visited her on a port of call en route to Japan. The visit coincided with the birth of the Tadas’ sixth child, Lillian Shizuyo, leading Harrison to propose that the couple rename her Lillian Ellery. They demurred, but the request attracted the attention of James T. Hamada, a reporter for the local Japanese newspaper Nippu Jiji and the author of the first Japanese American novel in English, Don’t Give Up the Ship: A Novel of the Hawaiian Islands. His article about Harrison—paired with a photograph of her with two of the Tada children—has a lead that is refreshingly distinct from the usual profiles that open with “Juanita Harrison is a colored woman.” Instead Hamada begins, “When a haole woman loves a cat, or is afraid of a mouse, that isn’t news. But when a woman of Negro and Indian blood, and a contributor to the highbrow Atlantic Monthly at that, takes a special liking for a newly born Japanese infant…[and] attempts to have the baby named after the editor of Atlantic Monthly, Ellery Sedgwick—that, my friends, IS news!”
While Harrison’s race was the consistent subject of reviews, her book demonstrates just how much her incessant travel undermined ethnic and national classifications. Harrison was of mixed heritage: Mississippi census records identity her mother as “mulatto,” and while in Hawaii Harrison represented herself as part Native American. Outside her home nation, her racially ambiguous looks, rebellious habits, and continual crossing of geographical and social borders made her origins impossible to descry. She reveals that she was variously deduced to be Chinese, Japanese, Arab, Cuban, Moroccan, Indian, Jewish, Spanish, Argentinean, and Greek. Her social position was equally inscrutable, prompting a Burmese woman in Darjeeling to complain, “One minute you wear a blue suit next minute a dress of 2 cent a yard crape then a little velvet dress with diamond ear rings how can we tell.” Harrison concludes, “I am willing to be what ever I can get the best treatments at being.” Her book’s original jacket design, composed of photographs of her in assorted costumes and poses, displays her satisfaction in playing with her identity, especially in assuming Asian guises. She is seen veiled and holding a clay pot, playing a mandolin, and standing in a bathing suit on a beach—in the last instance, presumably appearing as “herself.”
In the book, she makes her most explicit comment about her African American identity after encountering African women at the 1931 Paris Exposition, remarking, “I think they saw I had some of their blood I couldnt fool them.” She notes as well that in the South of France “you never think of your color.” These moments are the closest she comes to broaching racial issues. Such reticence may reflect a keen appraisal of what the original recipients of her letters were willing to hear, a group largely composed of white women she had once worked for. Alternatively, her editors might have excised explicit racial commentary from the text out of a similar desire to make it more anodyne.
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By the close of 1937 Harrison’s burst of celebrity had passed, and she dropped out of public view. Although she revealed that she was working on a second book, if she completed a manuscript it was never published. The year 1939 saw the final printing of My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, and its royalties may have helped fund her next major voyage, sailing to Sâo Francisco, Brazil, the following year. She made an extended tour of South America and spent nearly a decade in Buenos Aires before returning to Southern California and then Honolulu, where she lived until her death in 1967.
In the last extant letter we have from her, written to the drama critic James Mason Brown in the mid-1940s in response to one of his columns, Harrison advocates for the continued performance of adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin despite the book’s racist stereotypes. She also bitterly comments on the dearth of Black representation in educational and religious texts, demanding, “Why not show some part off uncle tom in your American Chrisrian Literture, and textbooks for the sake of culture? It may help the Negro, if no one else?” Along with revealing a fierce frustration about racist practices that did not find its way into her published book, the letter intimates how she may have viewed her own achievement as an African American traveler and best-selling author who infused countless places around the world with her restless, questing presence through indomitable travel and indefatigable writing alike.