April 9, 2014

A Novel and A Detective Story

This blog is devoted to crime and mystery fiction, but the novel I wish to discuss this month is not a mystery. The Bondwoman’s Narrative is the story of one woman’s escape from slavery. The discovery of the novel and the efforts of several scholars to identify the author is a literary detective story as exciting as the novel.

Discussion of this fascinating novel is difficult because it requires close reading to examine the strengths and weaknesses of plot and characterization and the historical context. So, I discuss it only briefly. Furthermore, the effort of scholars to verify the author’s identity is a literary detective story deserving its own critical analysis. For an in-depth discussion of the book, read Paul Berman’s brilliant and illuminating essay “The True Story of American’s First Black Female Slave Novelist” on the New Republic website.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative was published in 2002 by Warner Books and edited with introduction by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University. His discovery of the unpublished manuscript in the Swann Galleries catalogue was exciting because “Holograph, or handwritten, manuscripts by blacks in the nineteenth century are exceedingly rare….” The manuscript had never been edited by a professional editor or mediated by a white person as many of the fictional and nonfictional slave narratives were. If he could authenticate the manuscript and confirm the author’s identity, The Bondwoman’s Narrative would prove to be the first novel written by a former female slave in the United States.

The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts: A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina is the full handwritten title on the first page of this important black sentimental novel. As does many fictional and nonfictional slave narratives, it depicts the evils of slavery. Hannah, the literate narrator/ protagonist, tells the story of her escape from a plantation in Virginia, her capture and resale to the Wheelers in North Carolina, and finally her escape to New Jersey. Aunt Hetty an old white woman who lived near the plantation where Hannah grew up defied the law and taught her to read. Like many slaves who learned to read and write, Hannah knows the Bible and begins each chapter with a biblical epigraph.

Hannah seemingly accepts her condition as a slave: “’I am a slave’ thus my thoughts would run. ‘I can never be great; I cannot hold an elevated position, but I can do my duty, and be kind in the sure and certain hope of eternal reward.[‘]”.  She is also a perceptive observer of people:  Instead of books,” she “studied faces and characters, and arrived at conclusions by a sort of sagacity that closely approximated to the unerring certainty of animal instinct.” This talent for wearing the masks to conceal her feelings and thoughts from the masters, which many slaves learned, allows her to adjust to the different circumstances in which she finds herself. When the mask no longer works, she realizes it’s time to again make a try for freedom.

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The former slave clearly mastered the techniques of novel writing that made her an outstanding storyteller. She reveals the effects of slavery on master and slave, especially how supposedly kind masters supported the peculiar institution. In the preface she asks, “Have I succeeded in showing how it blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race?” My reply is a resounding yes.

Experts in ink and paper helped Professor Gates establish that the novel was written in the 1850s. His examination of the prose showed that the author was familiar with and borrowed from Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Unfortunately, he was unable to establish her identity. The story of the discovery of the novel is in itself as exciting as the novel, but even more exciting is the mystery of the author’s identity. Once the novel was authenticated, the literary detectives went to work to solve the mystery: who was Hannah Crafts?

An article in the New York Times dated September 18, 2013, claims that, 12 years after Professor Gates found the novel, Professor Gregg Hecimovich, chairman of the English Department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill South Carolina, had found additional evidence that revealed the author was named Hannah Bond, a slave on the plantation of John Hill Wheeler in North Carolina. Professor Hecimovich planned to publish his discovery in a book titled The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts.

If you are interested in African American literature, read The Bondwoman’s Narrative and the efforts to identify the author. You will not be disappointed.

The novel is certainly not a mystery, but the subject, slavery, was a national crime.

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