Sketches from the Life of a Free Black Our Nig; or Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

Harriet E. Wilson

Considered the first novel in English published by a black American woman, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859) fuses elements from several genres, including the sentimental novel, the slave narrative, the gothic romance, and the satire, to portray the life of a mulatto indentured servant in the antebellum North. The book was relatively unknown until it was discovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and published under his editorship in 1983. Since then the novel has forced critics to reevaluate the history of African American literature and to reconceive the development of the fictional narrative form in the United States.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known about Harriet E. Wilson's life has been pieced together by literary historians following the rediscovery of Our Nig; accordingly, reconstructions of Wilson's biography are incomplete and contain many contradictions. According to the 1860 Boston federal census, Harriet E. Adams was born in 1807 or 1808 in Fredericksburg, Virginia; however, the 1850 New Hampshire federal census claims she was born in 1827 or 1828 in New Hampshire. The 1850 census lists Adams as a resident of Milford, New Hampshire, in the home of a white family, the Boyleses, who served as the model for the Bellmonts in Our Nig, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Recent work by Barbara A. White, though, shows Adams to have resided with the Boyleses for a brief period following her indentured servitude to a family named Hayward, the more likely model for the Bellmonts.

In the fall of 1851 Adams married Thomas Wilson, whom she may have met through the abolitionist movement. Abandoned by her husband nine months after their marriage, Harriet Wilson delivered a son, George Mason Wilson, in 1852; mother and son lived together in poverty and poor health. In an effort to secure a more comfortable life for her son, Wilson left George with a couple in New Hampshire and traveled to Boston, where she remained from 1856 until 1863. There, hoping to become self sufficient and to regain her son, she registered the copyright for Our Nig in 1859, paying for the novel's publication with money she had earned as a seamstress. The book received little attention, however, and George's death is recorded in an obituary in the Farmer's Cabinet of February 29, 1860. There is no record of Wilson's life after 1863, although some sources list her death date as 1870.

Plot and Major Characters

In Our Nig a white orphan, Mag Smith, is seduced by a wealthy gentleman, who then abandons her. Later Mag bears a child, who dies within weeks of its birth, and she is ostracized from the community. She lives in virtual isolation until an African named Jim befriends her and proposes. Overcoming her initial shock at an interracial marriage, Mag marries Jim and later bears two children. When Jim dies of consumption shortly afterward, Mag, together with Jim's partner Seth Shipley, leaves her six-year-old daughter Frado at the home of a middle-class white family, the Bellmonts, and flees town.

When Frado reaches the age of seven, she becomes the Bellmonts' indentured servant and is beaten regularly by Mrs. Bellmont. For years Frado suffers at the hands of Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter Mary; her only respite comes from her relationships with the family's male members, particularly the oldest son James, who plans to take Frado to Baltimore as his servant. However, illness forces James to return to his parents' home, where both his and Frado's health decline. As she grows older,. Frado prevents further beatings from Mrs. Bellmont by threatening not to work. Feeling "the stirring of free and independent thoughts," Frado turns to books for comfort and, when she is eighteen, is freed.

Having very little with which to support herself, Frado is employed in a number of different professions, but her failing health forces her to accept public charity intermittently. However, she gradually perfects her needlework skills and sews straw hats with a white woman, who teaches Frado more about sewing and shares her library with her. This brief period of Frado's life is interrupted when a black man named Samuel comes to town on the fugitive slave lecture circuit. Frado and Samuel marry, but Samuel often leaves his wife to lecture, and eventually runs away to sea. When Frado bears their son, Samuel returns for a short time, only to abandon them again and die of fever in New Orleans. The novel closes with an abbreviated account of Frado's adventures fleeing slave-catchers and "kidnappers" and being abused by professed abolitionists who "didn't want slaves at the South, nor niggers in their houses, North." Appended to the text is Harriet Wilson's direct appeal to her audience, imploring them to purchase her book and provide her with the means to retrieve her son George.

Major Themes

In his introduction to the 1983 edition of the novel, Gates claims that Our Nig is a major example of generic fusion in which a woman writer appropriated black male (the slave narrative) and white female (the sentimental novel) forms and revised these into a synthesis at once peculiarly black and female." In many ways Frado does typify the sentimental heroine—parentless, poor, friendless and abused, relying on her own strength of character—but she also diverges from that tradition in her rejection of religion and her inability to establish a stable domestic life. Julia Stern (1995) contends that such differences mark Wilson's synthesis of sentimental and gothic traditions, particularly in the portrayal of Frado's suffering. And, while the novel itself is not literally a slave narrative, some critics have conjectured that the slave-narrative conventions used in Our Nig were intended to demonstrate the parallels between the treatments of blacks in the North and the South, including the similar economic motivations that structure relations within both systems.

Critical Reception

Our Nig was largely forgotten soon after its publication in 1859, possibly due to its criticism of abolitionists and the controversial portrayal of an interracial marriage. Although the novel was mentioned in Herbert Ross Brown's The Sentimental Novel in America (1940) and Joseph Kinney's "The Theme of Miscegenation in the American Novel to World War II" (1972), Our Nig was virtually unknown among literary scholars until 1983, when Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reintroduced it to the public. Subsequently many critics have addressed Wilson's manipulation of genres and her representation of African Americans and of Northern abolitionists, and have compared the novel with Harriet A. Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy, and William Wells Brown's Clotel. While, in the words of reviewer Francis Browne (1987), Our Nig "hardly ranks with the masterpieces of the genre," its historical importance as a "forerunner of the Afro-American literary tradition" is unmatched nonetheless.