The Bondwoman’s Narrative

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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Gates discovered the handwritten and previously unpublished manuscript in an auction catalog for Swann Galleries, which specializes in “Published & Manuscript African Americana.”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...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)