The Bondwoman’s Narrative

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1888

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an internationally acclaimed literary and cultural critic and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center for Afro-American Research, has received considerable attention in the past for his discovery of unknown or neglected works by early African American authors. After finding a copy of Harriet E. Wilson’s novel Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) in a secondhand bookstore, Gates reissued the long-forgotten novel in 1983 and established Harriet E. Wilson as the first African American woman to publish a novel in the United States, a designation previously reserved for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, author of the 1892 novel Iola Leroy. With the publication of The Bondwoman’s Narrative in 2002, Gates has once again altered the landscape of American and African American literature.

Gates discovered the handwritten and previously unpublished manuscript in an auction catalog for Swann Galleries, which specializes in “Published & Manuscript African Americana.” The catalog described it as “a fictionalized biography, written in an effusive style, purporting to be the story of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts, a mulatto, born in Virginia.” Furthermore, Dorothy Porter Wesley, a renowned historian and librarian at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, was the seller. These two facts—that the author was reputed to be black and that the manuscript had once been a part of Wesley’s private collection—convinced Gates that the item could be of considerable importance.

Gates has published The Bondwoman’s Narrative with a comprehensive introduction and appendices which comprise nearly a third of the published text, and in which Gates discusses the methods used to examine and authenticate the manuscript. His pursuit of the historical identity of Hannah Crafts reads like a detective story and is, perhaps, as compelling a tale as the one that Crafts depicts in her novel. Relying on internal and external evidence, Gates assembled a convincing theory as to the origins and autobiographical nature of The Bondwoman’s Narrative; as he suspected, his research indicated that the novel could very well be the first such work written by an African American woman and the only known novel written by a female fugitive slave.

After his initial reading of the novel, as he describes in his introduction, Gates noted several distinctive qualities about the text. Crafts incorporated several styles of writing in her novel, borrowing from such genres as the slave narrative, the gothic novel, and the ubiquitous nineteenth century sentimental novel. The combination of these various styles represented something quite new in the African American literary tradition. “Crafts . . . uses the story of a fugitive slave’s captivity and escape for the elements of her plot,” Gates explains, “as well as a subplot about passing, two other ‘firsts’ for a black female author in the African American literary tradition.”

Perhaps the most important factor for Gates in determining the racial heritage of Hannah Crafts was drawn from an observation made by Dorothy Porter Wesley, the previous owner of the manuscript. “There is no doubt,” Wesley wrote in a letter to Emily Driscoll, the original owner of the manuscript, “that she was a Negro because her approach to other Negroes is that they are people first of all.” As Gates notes, nineteenth century white authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe did just the opposite, by drawing immediate attention to the racial heritage of black characters and by introducing white characters more naturally, with no reference to any distinguishing racial features.

For a more thorough analysis of the manuscript, Gates sought the assistance of two celebrated specialists: Dr. Ken Rendall, who assisted in the analysis of the fraudulent Hitler diaries in the 1980’s; and Dr. Joe Nickell, a celebrated skeptic who exposed the Jack the Ripper diary as a hoax. Scientific analysis demonstrated that the manuscript was written before 1860, that the author was a young woman with no formal education, and that the author was largely self-taught and familiar with the popular literary works of her day. Citing the “elegance” of Dr. Nickell’s research, Gates appended the full “Authentication Report” to the novel. Having established with reasonable certainty the authenticity of The Bondwoman’s Narrative as a mid-nineteenth century novel written by a young African American woman, Gates turned to the text for any details that might provide clues to the historical identity of Hannah Crafts and the events in her narrative.

Hannah Crafts begins her narrative by describing the disadvantages of her birth and early life at Lindendale, a large estate in Virginia. “I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life,” a situation she finds exceedingly difficult to bear “because my complexion was almost white, and the obnoxious descent could not be readily traced.” Her prospects improve when an elderly white neighbor, known only as Aunt Hetty in the novel, offers to teach young Hannah to read, against the wishes of her master and the dictates of the law.

In due course, the master of Lindendale, Mr. Vincent, decides to take a bride, of whom Hannah becomes a particular favorite. She eventually discovers that Mrs. Vincent is, in fact, the daughter of a slave, although she is passing for white. Raised by her father to believe that she was his natural daughter, Mrs. Vincent only determines her true origins after her father’s death, when Mr. Trappe, the family solicitor and executor of the estate, finds the evidence among her father’s personal papers. Mr. Trappe resolves to extort money from Mrs. Vincent and her new husband under the threat of exposing her secret.

Fearful of the consequences of such exposure, Hannah resolves to flee Lindendale with Mrs. Vincent, only to be discovered some months later by Mr. Trappe. Under the strain of learning that her husband has died and that she will be sold as a slave, Mrs. Vincent collapses and dies. Hannah passes briefly through the hands of a slave-trader, Mr. Saddler, whose cart overturns on the way to the home of her new master. Mr. Saddler is killed instantly, but Hannah survives and finds sanctuary in the home of Mrs. Henry, a clergyman’s wife, who nurses her back to health.

Through the agency of Mrs. Henry, Hannah becomes the personal maid of Mrs. Wheeler, the wife of a former North Carolina senator and a friend of the Henry’s. Initially comfortable in her new situation at the Wheeler’s plantation in North Carolina, Hannah soon suffers the vindictiveness of a fellow slave, whom she has supplanted as Mrs. Wheeler’s personal maid. Mrs. Wheeler, convinced by deceit that Hannah has betrayed her confidence, banishes her from the house and further punishes her by promising her as a wife to one of the field slaves. Rather than suffer the indignity of a forced marriage and the horrific working and living conditions among field slaves, Hannah resolves to escape. She disguises herself as a young man and, aided by her fair complexion, flees the Wheeler plantation and joins the company of two fugitive slaves whom she meets on her journey north. After the deaths of her two companions, Hannah narrowly escapes drowning while trying to evade pursuers. When she regains consciousness, she reunites with her former teacher, Aunt Hetty, whose cottage provides a safe haven until she is well enough to continue north.

In the final pages of Crafts’s novel, Hannah finds freedom and happiness in the North. She settles in New Jersey, opens a school for black children, and marries an honorable and loving man. In contrast, the villainous Mr. Trappe reaps the consequences of his greed and inhumanity when, after acquiring the ownership and planning for the sale of a family of slaves through deceit, he is murdered by his prospective victims. In the fashion of most nineteenth century romances, Crafts’s novel ends with rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, a goal that Crafts makes explicit in her preface to the original manuscript.

In his “Authentication Report,” Dr. Nickell noted that Crafts initially abbreviated the family name of Wheeler, a common practice in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels. However, Crafts later filled in the full name of Wheeler, suggesting that the Wheelers were indeed actual people with whom Crafts was well acquainted. In the novel, Mr. Wheeler serves as a government official in Washington, D.C., and owns a large plantation in North Carolina. After consulting federal census records from North Carolina and Washington, D.C., Gates found that one man, John Hill Wheeler, matched the circumstances of Mr. Wheeler in the narrative. Gates also made an important discovery about a slave named Jane Johnson who belonged to John Hill Wheeler.

While traveling with John Hill Wheeler to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1855, Jane Johnson and her two children fled from Wheeler with the assistance of several others. Jane Johnson’s escape caused considerable public attention and the consequent court case in which Wheeler tried to regain custody of Jane became one of the first challenges to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Having thoroughly investigated the historical Jane Johnson, the details of which research he includes in his introduction to The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Gates found a connection between the historical Jane Johnson and a character in Crafts’s novel. When the character of Hannah is retained as Mrs. Wheeler’s personal maid in chapter 12, she replaces Mrs. Wheeler’s former slave, Jane, who had recently escaped.

Under the subheading “Searching for Hannah Crafts” in his introduction, Gates documents his meticulous examination of federal census records for the state of New Jersey, where the character of Hannah settles in the final chapter of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Gates also examined records from the Freedman’s Bank and the American Methodist Episcopal church (in the novel, Hannah’s husband is described as a Methodist minister). While he discovered several promising leads, Gates’s research turned up nothing concrete with regard to the historical identity of Hannah Crafts. In the end, the mystery of Hannah Crafts’s true identity remains, though the implications of Gates’s discovery continue to resonate.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative relies heavily on the conventions of traditional nineteenth century sentimental fiction, even cribbing gratuitously in several sections from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853), as Gates points out in his introduction. Despite its limitations as literature, however, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is free of the editorial tampering so common with other works by black authors of the nineteenth century. “Between us and them,” Gates explains, “between a twenty-first century readership and the pre-edited consciousness of even one fugitive slave, often stands an editorial apparatus reflective of an abolitionist ideology.” Crafts’s unpublished manuscript exhibits no such influences and therefore provides an entirely unique perspective on the life and literature of nineteenth century black authors. “To be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man . . . unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand, would help a new generation of scholars to gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible.”

Sources for Further Study

Black Issues Book Review 4 (May/June, 2002): 39.

Booklist 98 (March 15, 2002): 1189.

Library Journal 127 (June 1, 2002): 147.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (May 12, 2002): 30.

Publishers Weekly 249 (April 1, 2002): 53.

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