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 Henry Louis Gates, chairman of the African-American Studies Department at Harvard, had bought at auction the unpublished manuscript of the ‘earliest known novel by a female African-American slave and probably the earliest known novel by a black woman anywhere’.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.’

Since Gates had based a large part of his argument for Crafts’s authenticity on the rich detail of her writing, the revelation that these details were adapted from Bleak House might have been expected to reopen the question of whether Hannah Crafts was writing from personal experience – in short, of whether the book was in any sense autobiographical. On the New Yorker’s website, however, Gates used the new information to confirm his own position. The ex-slave, he wrote, was ‘trying to sketch out the conditions of her life by appropriating’ Dickens’s language and metaphors. ‘You could say,’ he added, ‘that this kind of interplay between originality and tradition is the ultimate subject of literary scholarship: something borrowed, something new.’

When The Bondwoman’s Narrative was published in April 2002, it included a two-page ‘Note on Crafts’s Literary Influences’, crediting Hollis Robbins with the discovery of the two Dickens borrowings, inviting further research, and maintaining that it would lead to ‘a richer understanding of the sources from the canon of American and English literature that inspired a fugitive slave to tell her story’. Gates’s 36-page introduction detailed the various steps and missteps he had taken in attempting to identify Crafts, while acknowledging that if the tale was entirely fictional, and if ‘Hannah Crafts’ was a pseudonym, it would be almost impossible to identify the author and prove she had been a slave. He did, however, claim that the novel’s Mr Wheeler was a real historical figure.

Wheeler is Hannah’s last owner before her escape and she writes some funny passages about his frustrated political ambitions in Washington, and an even more entertaining satire of her egocentric and capricious mistress, especially of an incident in which cosmetic powder turns the woman’s face black and leads to her being mistaken for a Negro. The humiliated family retreats from Washington to North Carolina, where Mrs Wheeler turns against Hannah and orders her to marry a fieldhand, whereupon Hannah runs away. Gates argued that Mr Wheeler was John Hill Wheeler, and the key to identifying the real Hannah Crafts. John Wheeler was a prominent, indeed notorious, figure in the 1850s. A native of North Carolina, who served as a state legislator and published the first history of the state in 1851, he was appointed ambassador to Nicaragua in 1853. In July 1855, after a visit to the United States, Wheeler was on his way back to Nicaragua by way of Philadelphia when a female slave named Jane Johnson, along with two of her children, escaped with the aid of local abolitionists, notably one Passmore Williamson. A bitter court battle ensued, in which Wheeler failed to regain possession of his slaves but succeeded in having Williamson jailed. There was extensive press coverage of the case and several books were published about it in 1855 and 1856. Wheeler was recalled from Nicaragua in 1856, and left Washington in 1861 when Lincoln took office. A public figure and a very literate man, Wheeler left ample documentation of his life.

Gates maintained that ‘Hannah Crafts’ was the name or pseudonym of a slave purchased by the Wheelers to replace the runaway Jane Johnson, and who then escaped herself. In a footnote, he added that Hannah probably ran away from Wheeler during a six-week period he spent in North Carolina in 1857. ‘While we may not yet be certain’ of the author’s name, Gates wrote in conclusion, we do know ‘the central and defining facts about her life: that she was female, mulatto, a slave of John Hill Wheeler’s, an autodidact, and a keen observer of the dynamics of slave life.’

Among the appendices to the book is a catalogue of Wheeler’s library in 1850, which, Gates wrote, ‘provides a rare opportunity for scholars to trace with great specificity the echoes, allusions and borrowings that this ex-slave drew upon to construct her novel’. If Crafts did get her literary education from Wheeler’s library, she was using it like a graduate student, not a slave. Critics have found echoes, thematic parallels, evocations, reminiscences and possible influences among a wide range of books owned by Wheeler, especially ones by American and African-American writers, although only English writers and the Bible are demonstrably quoted, paraphrased or referenced in the actual text. Several of these hypothetical literary influences and sources have been cited as further evidence of the Wheeler connection.

In addition to the Dickens borrowings, Crafts took some lengthy passages from Rob Roy, as well as several poetic epigraphs, and brief quotations from other British writers, including Wordsworth, Byron and Monk Lewis. Robbins expands her analysis in In Search of Hannah Crafts, a collection of 23 essays on the book and its context which she has edited with Gates. The Dickens connection is, as she argues, substantial; Crafts used Bleak House as a source for characters, themes and descriptions of place, brilliantly adapting the language to make it American rather than British, and to make the relevance to slavery nuanced and eloquent. Crafts bases Hannah’s first-person narrative on Esther Summerson, models the slave-owner Mrs Cosgrove on Lady Dedlock and takes the slave tracker Mr Trappe from Mr Tulkinghorn. As Robbins argues, passages are not copied or plagiarised; Crafts’s borrowings are highly skilled, and very aware of the differences between Bleak House and her own story. It is odd in the light of this that Gates maintained in his preface to the paperback edition of The Bondwoman’s Narrative that ‘Crafts is not a sophisticated writer’ and her ‘pattern of lifting passages from other novels … is one of several reflections of her status as an uneducated former slave’.

In their introduction to In Search of Hannah Crafts, Gates and Robbins still claim that The Bondwoman’s Narrative ‘is an autobiographical novel’; there is, they say, ‘a strong case to be made’ that Crafts is ‘who she says she is’ – a fugitive slave. They add that ‘questions of Hannah Crafts’s actual identity are put aside in most of the essays that follow,’ the book’s various contributors taking it ‘as a more or less settled matter that the author was a woman of African descent who wrote this text after attaining freedom in the North’.

Some contributors don’t take it as a settled matter, however. The document expert Joe Nickell concludes that ‘we cannot decisively prove or disprove any of several generic possibilities’ about Crafts: she may be an escaped slave, a free black woman or a white abolitionist. ‘What’s needed … is more precise evidence such as handwriting may be able to provide.’ The Southern historian Thomas Parramore demonstrates that Hannah Crafts ‘never set foot in North Carolina’, and adds that ‘too many of the manuscript’s researchers have strained to prove, rather than test, Hannah’s basic accuracy.’ He finds it ‘highly dubious’ that ‘internal evidence’ makes it ‘apparent that the work is that of a Negro’ and criticises the way Gates in his introduction to the novel conflated fact with fictional elements, and framed statements ‘so as to cause the reader to believe that they should all be viewed as factual’.

Gates himself no longer asserts that Crafts escaped from the Wheeler plantation in North Carolina: details in the novel about both Washington and North Carolina conflict with documented fact; the chronology of the novel does not fit Wheeler’s life very well; the dates leave too little time for an escaped slave to write a work of this length and with so many literary references; most important, it seems incredible that Wheeler, having pursued Jane Johnson so doggedly, would have failed to mention a second escaped slave even in his private journals.

Several of the contributors put aside the question of the author’s identity but still analyse the text as if it were written by a female ex-slave. Assuming that Crafts is black, they see evidence of blackness in the text. At the same time, they register numerous anomalies in Crafts’s narrative. Augusta Rohrbach, for example, notes that Crafts never cites any texts by African-American writers, but rather ‘the great works of Western literature – from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare to Byron’. Karen Sanchez-Eppler discusses the manuscript’s unusual title: the word ‘bondwoman’ appears in only one other piece of anti-slavery literature between 1830 and 1860, a poem written in 1846 by a white woman abolitionist called Elizabeth Lloyd. Sanchez-Eppler again ‘finds many aspects of Crafts’s text problematic as the work of a woman who had spent much of her life as a plantation slave’, particularly her ‘general sense of isolation’, her ‘unusual attitude towards literacy’, her virulent ‘repulsion from life in the slave quarters’, and her mistakes about the climate, agriculture and geography of North Carolina. But when urged by the participants in a colloquium on the book in Berlin to think about the possibility of Hannah Crafts being a white woman, Sanchez-Eppler could not reconcile this notion with the lack of racial prejudice in the narrative.

A few white women actually named Hannah Crafts have been eliminated on the basis of handwriting, but there hasn’t been a systematic search among white abolitionist writers of the period. Gates has always maintained that a white abolitionist author is highly unlikely, partly on the grounds that ‘fewer than a dozen white authors in the 19th century engaged in literary racial ventriloquism, adopting a black persona and attempting to be black,’ and partly on the naturalness of Crafts’s presentation of black characters. John Bloom’s piece in the National Review, arguing that the author could well be a white abolitionist, is reprinted in In Search of Hannah Crafts, but he is the only contributor to the volume who makes this argument.

In the best essay in the collection, Nina Baym, accepting that we may never find out who wrote the novel, stresses its power as a piece of writing. Since it is ‘obviously a novel’, she writes, ‘much or most of it is made up’. Its imaginative truth, rather than its author’s experiences, guarantees its authenticity. Baym again finds it highly unlikely that Hannah was a fugitive slave and regards the Wheeler library catalogue as a ‘red herring’, since in any case Hannah Crafts could have had only brief access to it. She finds it ‘just about impossible … to imagine a [slave] Hannah with access to the necessary tools for producing a weighty manuscript full of literary allusions’. Baym suggests another candidate – Hannah Vincent, a free black woman who was a schoolteacher. More important, she concludes that Crafts was ‘a true literary genius’.

The literary quality of The Bondwoman’s Narrative has been largely ignored, denigrated, or subordinated to its historical importance, often because it has been assumed to display the ‘heavy-handed moralism’ and sentimentality of popular American women’s fiction of the 1850s. Gates, in common with many other scholars, seems not to have recognised that this is a powerful, artistically important novel, Gothic rather than sentimental, and full of fascinating inventions. In one episode, for example, Crafts recounts the story of an old slave and her dog who were ‘gibbeted’ – that is, suspended in an iron frame until they died of starvation – and returned to haunt their master. No one has found a historical or a literary antecedent for this incident.

Crafts wasn’t the only American writer of the period to borrow from Dickens. Rebecca Harding Davis, a radical white writer, used one of the same passages from Bleak House in her novella of 1861, ‘Life in the Iron Mills’: ‘Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river, clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by … Smoke everywhere!’ (For the record, we have compared Davis’s handwriting with that of Crafts and they do not appear to match.) But Crafts was a better writer than Davis, with a finer command of language. Her identity ought to be established not only because she might have been an ex-slave, or a free black woman, although either discovery would be momentous – but also because of her contribution to the American canon.

In February 2005, in an article in the Boston Globe, Holly Jackson, a graduate student at Brandeis University, offered decisive genealogical proof that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, the author of two novels in the Schomburg Library of 19th-Century Black Women Writers, also edited by Gates, was actually white. The genealogist Katherine Flynn independently came to the same conclusion. Gates has said that the two novels, Megda (1891) and Four Girls at Cottage City (1895), will be ‘deleted’. Kelley-Hawkins’s picture, however, still graces the digital home page of the series. The picture is significant, because since the 1950s, it has served as evidence in numerous bibliographies and literary guides that the author was black. ‘You put that picture up in my barbershop,’ Gates has said, ‘and I guarantee the vote would be to make her a sister.’ The novels themselves have no black characters and manifest no interest in questions of race, although various critics turned themselves inside out to find covert signs of racial identity. As Jackson tactfully puts it, these readings ‘now seem notably strained’. Jackson had hoped that once the true identity of Kelley-Hawkins was known, she could write an introduction to a new edition. Not likely. Gates is probably right that ‘people won’t write about her any more.’ ‘There are so few black women writers in the 19th century that every single one matters,’ he added. ‘It’s less important to add one more white woman.’ Hannah Crafts may indeed have been a black woman writer and a fugitive slave; but even if she was neither, she is too interesting and important to be dropped from the literary record.

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