Every single one matters

Elaine Showalter and English Showalter

  • In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’ edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr and Hollis Robbins
    Basic Books, 458 pp, £17.50, January 2005, ISBN 0 465 02708 3

On 11 November 2001, the New York Times announced a major literary discovery. Henry Louis Gates, chairman of the African-American Studies Department at Harvard, had bought at auction the unpublished manuscript of the ‘earliest known novel by a female African-American slave and probably the earliest known novel by a black woman anywhere’. According to the article, the novel, signed by Hannah Crafts and called ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’, was the story of a woman’s life as a house slave on the North Carolina plantation of John Hill Wheeler, her escape to New Jersey in 1857, and her composition of an autobiographical fiction incorporating ‘elements of the many sentimental sagas she had evidently borrowed from Mr Wheeler’s shelf’. Although ‘replete with the heavy-handed moralising and preposterous coincidence characteristic of the popular women’s fiction of the time’, ‘The Bondwoman’s Narrative’ was ‘unique as a surviving handwritten manuscript by an escaped slave, providing singularly direct access to its author’s thoughts and feelings’.

Scholarly discoveries are rarely announced on the front page of the New York Times but in this case both Gates’s prominence and the importance of the manuscript made the acquisition newsworthy. A manuscript novel by an ex-slave was a rare find, and one by a female slave even rarer. The existence of such a novel would show that slaves had been able to transcend the terms of their oppression and enforced illiteracy to produce sophisticated works of literature. Its cultural and political significance was immense.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative became a best-seller. It was widely reviewed, not just in literary periodicals but in popular magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek and People.[*] It was optioned for the movies, recorded as an audiobook by Anna Deveare Smith, and added to the reading lists of many courses in African-American literature. In May 2003, Gates donated the manuscript, now valued at $350,000 – he bought it for $8500 – to Yale University, from which he graduated in 1973. There was just one problem. Although experts authenticated the manuscript as having been written between 1853 and 1861, Gates wasn’t able to identify ‘Hannah Crafts’, or to prove that she was an ex-slave, an African-American, or even a woman. All of these attributions, as Gates acknowledges, are based on circumstantial evidence.

In an article that appeared in the New Yorker in February 2002, a couple of months before the novel was due to be published, Gates quoted some extracts from the text to show the authenticity of the experiences described and to indicate that Crafts would have known them at first hand. For example, although generally very vague about places, names and dates, Crafts ‘describes the winter in Washington with the vividness of someone who may have seen it for herself’: ‘Gloom everywhere. Gloom up the Potomac, where it rolls among the meadows no longer green, and by splendid country seats. Gloom down the Potomac, where it washes the sides of huge warships.’ Another passage, Gates argues, demonstrates ‘her understanding of the dehumanising misery of slavery’, using language ‘that is unusually potent’ to describe the field slaves’ living conditions: ‘Is it a stretch of imagination to say that by night they contained a swarm of misery, that crowds of foul existence crawled in out of gaps in walls and boards or coiled themselves to sleep on nauseous heaps of straw fetid with human perspiration … where the rain drips in.’

Both descriptions are closely adapted from Bleak House, the first from Chapter 1: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river … fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city’; and the second from Chapter 16, where Dickens describes the slum Tom-all-Alone’s. These are two of the most distinctive, easily recognised and often analysed passages in Dickens, and as soon as the New Yorker appeared, Hollis Robbins, a graduate student of English at Princeton, identified the source and phoned a friend at the magazine. ‘By evening,’ according to the Boston Globe, ‘Robbins was on the phone with Gates.’

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[*] Hilary Mantel’s review in the LRB (8 August 2002) is reprinted in In Search of Hannah Crafts.