Ex-slave's historic novel preserved

Scholar buys manuscript written by female escapee

spring publication set


In spring 1857, one of John Hill Wheeler's slaves slipped away from his North Carolina plantation and made her way north to New Jersey. There she promptly picked up a quill pen and began to write a novel, combining the story of her life with elements of the many sentimental sagas she had evidently borrowed from Wheeler's shelf.

This is the origin of a 300-page manuscript called The Bondswoman's Narrative, said its new owner, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of the African-American studies department at Harvard University. He says the manuscript, unpublished and unnoticed for more than 140 years, is the earliest known novel by a female African-American slave and probably the earliest known novel by a black woman anywhere. It is one of only a handful of novels by African-American slaves.

Warner Books plans to publish the manuscript in April.

Gates was the only bidder for the manuscript at an auction at the Swann Galleries in New York this year, and he acquired it for less than $10,000. Two well-known experts on detecting literary forgeries, Kenneth Rendell and Joe Nickell, have verified its authenticity after an extensive investigation, assessing its contemporary historical references and the age of its ink and paper.

The novel, signed by Hannah Crafts, is a woman's account of her life as a house slave to a number of owners and then as a teacher in the North. In one episode, the narrator accidentally gives her owner's wife a cosmetic powder that somehow turns her face black. The humiliated wife later punishes the narrator for gossiping about the incident by attempting to force her to marry a field hand whom she scorns as beneath her. Horrified at the prospect, she flees to New Jersey by taking advantage of her light skin and disguising herself as a white boy.

Replete with the heavy-handed moralizing and preposterous coincidences characteristic of the popular women's fiction of the time, the unedited novel is unlikely to attain the status of a literary masterpiece.

But its existence suggests that some slaves managed to attain a far greater degree of literacy and literary sophistication than many historians have supposed. Its author clearly had an extensive vocabulary and a deep familiarity with contemporary literary genres even before gaining her freedom, although her spelling and punctuation were spotty.

Nellie Y. McKay, a professor of African-American literature at the University of Wisconsin, said that 10 years ago, most scholars assumed that only a handful of slaves had overcome the obstacles to their education and to write novels, and that those few who did were known. "Now, who knows how many there were?" she said.

It is impossible to know how many of the novel's details are autobiographical, but the portrait of a slave's life nonetheless provides a window into the psychology and perspective of a slave woman.

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