In a new book published this spring DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. has a co-author—a woman who died more than a century ago.
This month Gates published a manuscript written by a 19th-century slave—a document he bought last year and subsequently authenticated and edited. The Bondwoman’s Narrative, subtitled “a novel,” is a fictionalized biography.
Though its events are embellished and dramatized, Gates said the narrative is important because it was written by a slave who knew that in her time, her work would never be given serious consideration.
“The most important thing is that now, 150 years after she lived, a female slave is finally having her day,” he said.
Flipping through antique catalogs last summer, Gates came across a manuscript purportedly written by a female slave in the 1850s. He bought the document at an auction for less than $10,000 and spent the next year authenticating the text and narrowing down its possible author.
Describing the work in an interview Saturday in between stops on a promotion tour, Gates said the narrative offers a “glimpse into the mind of an American slave woman.”
Though Gates and other experts were not able to pinpoint the woman who wrote the narrative or the year that she wrote it, they were able to confirm some basic facts. Around 1850 a self-educated female slave in North Carolina who went by the name Hannah Crafts set down a fictionalized account of her life, including a visit to Washington, D.C., and her eventual escape to the North.
The published novel is uncut and includes even Crafts’ deletions to the handwritten manuscript. While Gates touched up some punctuation, he left spelling as it was and made few other changes.
The new book has garnered mixed reviews for its literary qualities—many passages are taken directly from Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House, among other sentimental 19th-century works.
A review in Publisher’s Weekly called the style “sentimental and effusive” and another reviewer in Booklist said the narrative was “overwritten and melodramatic but engrossing to the end.”
Reviewers have found the narrative as interesting for Gates’ hand in it as for the original piece itself.
“Nothing intrigues quite the way an old manuscript does: there’s the story told in its pages, but there’s also the story of the pages,” the Publisher’s Weekly review said.
Gates said the work’s merit lies in its place in historical fiction and its uniqueness as perhaps the first novel written by a black woman.
Unlike the celebrated autobiography of Frederick Douglass, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is embellished and dramatized. It’s a work of what Gates calls “autobiographical fiction”—one of just a few such fictional accounts by American slaves, he said.
Gates said proving it was really written by a 19th-century slave became the most time-consuming task, which required hiring an expert on the history of penmanship, pens and paper.
Gates said he expects the novel to have an influence on the academic world equal to that of other narratives.
The publication of this manuscript “will lead other scholars to search for and publish lost works themselves,” he said. “This type of research will continue in the future of African American studies at Harvard.”
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