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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals


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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.


"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." — Jehan Roberson, Public Books


Winner — PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction, 2021

Shortlisted — James Tait Black Prize, 2020

Commended — Modern Language Association William Sanders Scarborough Prize, 2019

Shortlisted — Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, 2020

Winner — American Studies Association John Hope Franklin Prize, 2020

Winner — American Historical Association Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, 2020

Winner — Lionel Trilling Book Award, 2020

Winner — Publishing Triangle Award, 2020

Winner — National Book Critics Circle Award, 2019

Shortlisted — Lambda Literary Award, 2020

Winner — Organization of American Historians Mary Nickliss Prize, 2020