The characters in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments are rarely written about. For the most part stories about women of color born into poverty are lost or erased, they survive only as names in the ledgers of correctional facilities, or a point of evidence in some sociologist's dissection of a social problem. Hartman's book is an in-depth study of just these kinds of girls, women who were part of the great migration to the north after Emancipation, girls who ended up in riots, or a chorus line, instead of a home or a steady job. Because there's so little concrete evidence about these women, Hartman's book is part fiction, part history, filled with exquisite descriptions of heartbreak and lost virginities and long nights, of the smell of summer in Harlem and the screech of voices on the Atlantic City boardwalk. This is history told as fiction because it is, in part, the only way it can be recovered, and I promise you it will be one of the most astonishingly beautiful books you have ever read.
Winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism
Winner of the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the 2020 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography
"Exhilarating…A rich resurrection of a forgotten history." —Parul Sehgal, New York Times
Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recovers these women’s radical aspirations and insurgent desires.
About the Author
Saidiya Hartman is the author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and Scenes of Subjection. A MacArthur "Genius" Fellow, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, Cullman Fellow, and Fulbright Scholar. She is a University Professor at Columbia University and lives in New York.
I was inspired, surprised and deeply moved.…[Hartman's] mode is intimate, radical and always alive to the details. — Leslie Jamison - The New York Times Book Review
Revelatory.… Wayward Lives is thrilling to read because it invents a genre as deft and adventurous as the lives it chronicles.
— Sam Huber - The Nation
Hartman has influenced an entire generation of scholars and afforded readers a proximity to the past that would otherwise be foreclosed. — MacArthur Foundation
Kaleidoscopic.… In granting these forgotten women a voice, and conjuring their longing for freedom, Hartman resists the century-long diminution of their lives to social problems.… The result is an effect more usually associated with fiction than history, of inspiring a powerful imaginative empathy—not only towards characters in the distant past but towards the strangers all around us, whose humanity we share. — Joanna Scutts - New Republic
Genre-bending literary history.… These are dishy, illuminating, and heartbreaking stories about the knotted relationship between desire and freedom. — Kat Stoeffel - Elle
Brilliant.… A virtuosic work of scholarship that recovers fragments of the lives of women who were supposed to be forgotten. As a result of her formidable research, stunning erudition, translucent prose and bold imagination, Saidiya Hartman reanimates their lives. Readers will not be able to forget them. They will also learn much about the social forces that enabled and constrained their struggle to live in beauty and freedom. — Cheryl A. Wall - Cheryl A. Wall
A radical, genre-defying examination of the lives of ‘ordinary’ young Black women.… As is redolent of all Hartman’s work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments offers a blistering critique of historical archives as the singular or even most authoritative source of credible knowledge.… [She] implores us to pause and consider who is inside of and outside of the archive; whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced; whose lives matter and whose lives do not.
— Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor - Los Angeles Review of Books
This is scholarship as art imbued with a kind of discursive simultaneity that yields both eulogy and possibility.… [A] gorgeous, heartbreaking triumph of a book. — Daphne A. Brooks - New Inquiry
A profound and painstaking act of reconstruction that renews our understanding of an era now largely faded from public memory.… A bravely wayward, unflinchingly hybrid book, perhaps best described as halfway between the novel and documentary history, but more than anything else it leaves me curious about where Saidiya Hartman’s thinking will take us next. — Jess Row - Bookforum
Weaving in and out of disciplinary standards for both historical and archival works, Wayward Lives employs tools such as speculative imaginings and possibility to elaborate on the potential thoughts, wishes, and fears each character might have experienced. Hartman is at her most virtuosic in these moments of supposition, where entire pages, sections, and chapters hinge on key words like ‘perhaps,’ ‘maybe,’ and ‘possible.’ She deftly points to what we can never know about these figures while underlining what we know for sure: that they lived, struggled, thought, and loved.