Elizabeth Breau (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Identifying Satire: Our Nig," Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 455-65.
[In the following essay, Breau contends that Our Nig is meant to satirize the slavery and indentured servitude that were allowed to exist in the antebellum North.]
In his introduction to Harriet Wilson's novel, Our Nig, Henry Louis Gates argues that the book is both a sentimental novel and an autobiography.1 Establishing the autobiographical nature of the text is his first concern; he begins his essay by referring to the historical data—publishing records, census information, and the death certificate of Wilson's son—that helped him establish Wilson's historical identity and authorship. He supports his argument by comparing the plot details of Our Nig with the information contained in the three appendices that follow the text.
A reader guided by this interpretation of Our Nig reads it as a serious text, written by one who "preferred the pious, direct appeal to the subtle or ambiguous."2 The image of Harriet Wilson as a desperate mother "forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life" hovers over Our Nig as we read, underscoring the similarities between the author's claims in the preface and the suffering of her heroine, Frado.3 Gates claims that Wilson would have produced an inferior product had she strayed from her lived experience and attempted to write fiction:
the 'autobiographical' consistencies between the fragments of Harriet Wilson's life and the depiction of the calamities of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, would suggest that Mrs. Wilson was able to gain control over her materials more readily than her fellow black novelists of that decade precisely by adhering closely to the painful details of suffering that were part of her experience.4
Gates also implicitly disparages Wilson's creativity in his discussion of the ways in which her narrative compares with what Nina Baym has called the "overplot" of the sentimental fiction produced by Wilson's white female contemporaries. Although Gates credits Wilson with the creation of a new form of fiction, "the black woman's novel … because she invented her own plot structure through which to narrate the saga of her orphaned mulatto heroine," he implies that Wilson mimicked that literature with which she was most familiar, altering it only when it did not conform to her real life experience.5 The picture drawn of Wilson in Gates' introduction is therefore not that of a creative writer comfortably in control of her material, but instead that of a nearly illiterate woman who stumbled onto originality because her life story—the only story she was equipped to tell—did not conform entirely to contemporary literary convention.
Gates' definition of Our Nig as largely autobiographical convinces us that we must ignore indications that Wilson's meaning is not always straightforward and that textual inconsistencies or "inversions" may not be due to lack of authorial skill. Once Our Nig is perceived as a true life story, similar to the slave narratives written by Wilson's contemporaries, it becomes difficult to read the text's satiric or ironic moments as more than the angry aberrations of an unskilled writer. A detailed examination of Wilson's prose, however, suggests that large portions of Our Nig are satiric and that Wilson's indictment of antebellum Northern racism derives most of its power from that satire.
Michael Seidel writes that one of the first hints that a text may be satiric is "the claim to truth as a narrative privilege."6 Although this is most notably true in those satires that are patently false, such as Don Quixote, Candide, or Gulliver's Travels, a satire that disguises itself as truth need not be obviously fantastical. Our Nig purports to be truthful in several ways. Its full title is 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. By Our Nig.' Gates comments that "the boldness and cleverness in the ironic use of 'Nig' as title and pseudonym is, to say the least, impressive, standing certainly as one of the black tradition's earliest recorded usages."7 Wilson's "pseudonym" functions to convince her readers that the author and protagonist of her tale are the same. The pseudonym also suggests that, as a true narrative, Our Nig will conform to the generic model of the slave narratives that themselves mimicked the sentimental fiction written by white women. The allegorical phrase, "Two-Story White House, North," further suggests a serious, non-satiric text because it also conforms to the generic expectations of both abolitionist literature and sentimental fiction.
In contrast, the juxtaposition of "Our Nig" and "Free Black" does not conform to such generic expectations but instead implies that the narrative concerns itself with an aberration from the status quo. This part of the title supports Wilson's satiric pseudonym, challenging beliefs in Northern equality and suggesting social depravity. As a satirist, Wilson is outraged that slavery, or its partner, indentured servitude, can exist among those who congratulate themselves on their moral superiority to Southern slaveholders. Significantly, Frado is not even legally indentured; she is bound by default as it becomes increasingly clear that her mother is never going to return for her. The Bellmonts, at whose home she is abandoned, never consider that Frado might do something besides work for them; by the time she becomes an adolescent, she knows she is compelled to remain with them until her eighteenth birthday.
Wilson's preface invites inspection. Beginning with the usual demurrals regarding her literary talents and a seemingly straightforward statement about her financial desperation, she disguises her purpose with a disclaimer that conforms to the satirist's tendency "to deny what they are doing at the same time that they are doing it, and this presents the satirist as something of a hypocrite (her)self."8 Wilson tells us that she "would not … palliate slavery at the South by disclosures of its appurtenances North."9 By accepting this statement, innocently placed after a description of how her poverty has induced her to write, the reader is lulled into accepting the assertion (surprising for Wilson's time) that the injustices commonly said to belong only to the South also exist in the North. Although Wilson hastens to reassure us that "my mistress was wholly imbued with southern principles," the text contains no other indications that Mrs. Bellmont is a southerner, and none of the book's other characters are so excused. Wilson continues:
I do not pretend to divulge every transaction in my own life, which the unprejudiced would declare unfavorable in comparison with treatment of legal bondmen; I have purposely omitted what would most provoke shame in our good anti-slavery friends at home.
Wilson could, in other words, make the North seem even crueller and more inhumane than the South, had she the desire to do so. And, in telling us that she has omitted the worst of her tale, the real cruelty, she has ironically informed us that the free North is crueller to its black residents than the slaveholding South. As the events of Frado's life make clear, "our good anti-slavery friends at home" have every reason to feel ashamed.
Before beginning my analysis of the text proper, I would like to say a few words about the three letters appended to it. Gates relies heavily on these to support his claim that Our Nig is autobiographical, even going so far as to suggest that Wilson's style reveals that she felt less anxiety about those portions of the text that are historically verifiable than she did about those sections for which we have no supporting documentation.10 Wilson could not have known, however, that those reading her work in the twentieth century would have access only to certain historical records—we have her marriage certificate, for example, but do not know either the exact date of her birth or who her parents were. Moreover, Gates does not remark on the ways in which the appended letters are inconsistent with the careful authentication that usually accompanies nineteeth-century African-American autobiographical texts. Wilson's text lacks, for example, prefatory letters by distinguished white friends of the author vouching for her honesty and integrity. This lack of white approval sets Our Nig apart from other antebellum African-American texts and indicates that it may not be restrained by the author's deference to her white patrons. Wilson further indicates the extent to which her text rejects white assistance by ending it with three letters that supposedly verify the events it depicts. The placement of the letters at the end of the text, rather than at its beginning, inverts the form of antebellum African-American literature and suggests that Wilson may be parodying generic requirements.
The authorship of the three appended letters is dubious. The second letter, written by "Margaretta Thorn," "is the source of the little that we know about the author's childhood … she was hired out to a family 'calling themselves Christians' … [who] put her to work … allegedly ruining her health by unduly difficult work."11 Although this account corresponds with Frado's servitude in the Bellmont household, it seems odd that Gates should suddenly forget his meticulous concern with verifying every detail of Wilson's life with historical documentation enough to be silent on the identity of Margaretta Thorn, the author of this crucial letter. Even her name, "Thorn," is strange, underscoring the ways in which her anonymity prickles at the reader seeking reassurance that Wilson is a reliable black storyteller and not one who takes advantage of white sympathies and credulity.
The first and third letters are even less convincing as authenticating documentation. The first letter is signed "Allida," with no surname. Although Gates declares Allida's letter conclusive in establishing the autobiographical nature of Our Nig, he gives no more thought to the identity of Allida than he does to that of Thorn. He is a little more concerned with the author of the third letter, who has simply signed with the initials, C. D. S. Since these initials were a "legal abbreviation for 'Colored Indentured Servant,'" Gates concludes that C. D. S. was either an indentured mulatto or a white friend who chose not to sign his or her name.12
Rather than suggesting that Gates overlooked essential information that holds the key toOur Nig's authenticity, I would like to propose that the three appended letters function as a deceptive claim to truth, masking the novel's satiric intent by parodying the form of slave narratives. If parody, as Linda Hutcheon writes, "is a form of imitation, but imitation characterized by ironic inversion, not always at the expense of the parodied text," and if Wilson was writing a satiric tale of slavery in the ostensibly free North, it seems logical that she would mimic, without insulting, the genuinely autobiographical slave narratives that were also written to advance the position of African-Americans.13 Wilson could, in other words, have written all three letters herself. The placement of the letters at the end, rather than the beginning of the text, constitutes one parodic inversion; that they are signed in two cases with incomplete names (either female or neuter), rather than with the names of respectable, well-known (male) citizens is another.
It is no trivial matter, given the ongoing pressure felt by African-American scholars to verify the claims made by slave narratives, to suggest that Wilson's narrative is not an authentic autobiography. A false or fictional autobiography impugns the claims of black abolitionists to be truthful and undermines assertions about the horrific nature of slavery. As I suggest above, however, the expectation that nineteenth-century blackauthored first-person narratives contain only unaltered truth restricts our ability to see the authors of such texts as creative artists and confines them to the limiting role of political advocates who did their inadequate best with the existing white literary tradition.
Wilson recognized the trespass her fiction constituted and addressed it by including a portrait of a dishonest African-American who misrepresents his suffering under slavery within her text. Frado's husband, Samuel, "left her to her fate—embarked at sea, with the disclosure that he had never seen the South, and that his illiterate harangues were humbugs for hungry abolitionists."14 In a genuine slave narrative, this disclosure of Samuel's fraudulence would be accompanied with moralizing, the author's lament about how the degradations of unequal treatment had bestialized the man so that he could no longer comprehend the damage his imposture did to his race. Wilson, in contrast, merely has Samuel die, less than a page later, "of yellow fever, in New Orleans." His death serves as a satiric punishment: yellow fever signifies his cowardice and dishonesty. It is also fitting that he, a pretended runaway slave, should die in the deep South, captured, as it were, by his own falsehood.
The text proper of Our Nig is rife with inconsistencies that, to the reader who interprets all statements at face value, suggest authorial incompetence or error. The story begins with a discrepancy that should alert the wary reader that this text may contain more than it appears...
(The entire section is 5740 words.)