As discussed in the academic paper “From Concealed to Canon in 10 Years” from the monograph Neglected Voices (Southern Michigan University Press, 2011), the meteoric rise of the author Sarah Lincoln Camden among literary critics is in many ways unprecedented. While there are many authors who were all but unknown in their own lifetimes, like Emily Dickinson, they only ascended to their favored place in the literary canon–those works considered essential to a literary education–after decades of study and a gradual increase in popularity.

In contrast, Camden’s nonfiction writings and short stories were appearing in college curricula and reading lists less than five years later. “As far as I’m concerned, Camden is canonical already,” was the riposte of a famous literary critic when asked about it. “I don’t know of a single 19th-century American literature course that isn’t using at least one of her writings, and it’s on every comprehensive exam reading list that our department has prepared since 2007.

Naturally, part of that appeal comes from her life story. Born ca. 1888, the illegitimate daughter of a New York businessman and his African-American maid, Camden represents an intersection of racial and class issues that have long fascinated academics and students of history. Her education–according to her writing, provided for by her otherwise absent father–lends a probing, progressive, and intelligent angle to the writing that is often absent from contemporary perspectives regardless of race, class, or sex.

But far beyond that, the nature of Camden’s journals, stories, and other manuscript fragments are notable for the absorbing quality of their prose. “I was sucked in from the very first,” said academic Dr. Chris Stevenson, who helped unearth the writings buried in an obscure and forgotten archive. “The stories, the essays, the journal entries…not just windows on a less equitable time, but riveting reading in their own right.”

In short, Sarah Lincoln Camden is enjoying a remarkable rise to the fame and literary prominence that eluded her in life, all the more remarkable for coming over 120 years after her death.

There’s only one problem: Sarah Lincoln Camden does not and never has existed.

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