The Bondwoman's Narrative
By Hannah Crafts
Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Warner Books, 338 pp., $24.95
When Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of Harvard's Afro-American Studies program, first learned of Swann Galleries' lot number 30, the auction-house catalog had it down as: "Unpublished Original Manuscript. ... '[A] fictionalized biography ... purporting to be the story of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts, a mulatto, born in Virginia.' ... It is uncertain that this work is written by a 'negro.'"
What was almost certain, though, was the date of composition -- circa 1850s, which, if the manuscript were the work of a "negro," would make it a rare document indeed: in Gates' words, "possibly the first novel written by a black woman and definitely the first novel written by a woman who had been a slave." More than that, lot 30 would be the first holograph (or handwritten) "belletristic" work (in this case, novel) by an ex-slave to survive -- an "unprecedented opportunity," Gates writes, "to analyze the degree of literacy that at least one slave possessed before the sophisticated editorial hand of a printer or an abolitionist amanuensis performed the midwifery of copyediting." On February 15, 2001, Gates bid on the manuscript, and that day Gates won it: a tangible record, Gates states, of "the unadulterated 'voice' of the fugitive slave herself, exactly as she wrote and edited it."
"It" is The Bondwoman's Narrative, a work which internal evidence does suggest is autobiographically based but a work of fiction nonetheless. How it was that Hannah Crafts wrote it is one thing; who Hannah Crafts was is another. And to the first question (which he largely answers), Gates went to science; to the second question (which still awaits answer), Gates went to census records and contemporary news events. You can read of his researches in Gates' lengthy introduction to the book and in the textual annotations he supplies and the appendixes he reprints. But on the quality of Crafts' writing, go to the popular literature of the mid-19th century, because that is where you'll find Crafts twisting convention to suit her purpose and making for herself, after a century and a half, a name.
Crafts' story, which comes to us with eccentric spellings preserved, unorthodox punctuation corrected, and clear borrowings from Dickens intact, is heavy on the melodramatic and even heavier on sheer coincidence, darkest treachery, highest virtue, narrow escapes, implausible disguises, brutality, suicide, insanity, and whatever other sentimental, gothic, audience-pleasing element you could hope to find. And Hannah is the name of the light-skinned house slave (not field hand) at the melodrama's center. Over time and in her native Virginia, then in North Carolina, she meets with a kind mistress, a diabolical (and omnipresent) lawyer/slave-trader, forced travel on foot, near-starvation, imprisonment, one very unkind mistress, the filthy streets of Washington, D.C., the threat of rape, further escape on foot, and final freedom in the North.
What we as readers meet with is, however, something clearly uncommon for its time: a novel that presents the slave not as object but as human being. Crafts makes the point every time she withholds our knowledge of a character's skin color and every time we read of Hannah believing herself "a rational being" who could "think and speculate," of intimate scenes between maid and mistress that for a moment release Hannah from the "disparity in our conditions," of Hannah's opinion that "those that view slavery only as it relates to physical sufferings or the wants of nature can have no conception of its greatest evils" -- meaning "the fear, the apprehension, the dread, and deep anxiety" attending slavery in all its forms, be it worker to master, wife to husband, man to money, knowledge to ignorance, present to past.
In 1982, Gates rediscovered and authenticated Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859), the first novel published by a black woman but a black woman born free. With The Bondwoman's Narrative he does Hannah Crafts, born unfree, the same honor, with the added distinction that Crafts' book was until now never published. It was, however, kept safe, until her death in 1995, by a woman Gates equally honors in his introduction and in his dedication: Dorothy Porter Wesley. Wesley, librarian and historian at Howard University, bought the Crafts manuscript from a New York dealer in 1948 and instantly recognized the novel's "sentimental and effusive style." But she also believed its sensitive handling of black characters owed to black authorship.
Why Wesley failed to try to locate the historical Hannah Crafts is a question Gates asks before embarking on his own author search. That he has so far failed to end that search makes publication of The Bondwoman's Narrative no less an event. For students of African-American literature, reading it's a requirement. For general audiences, reading it's a rare look into the antebellum South and a good look into literary detective work.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. will be signing and reading from The Bondwoman's Narrative at 5 p.m. Friday, April 26th, at Off Square Books (five doors down from Square Books) in Oxford.