The Mystery of a 150-Year-Old Slave Novel, Solved
The school year has only just begun, but a South Carolina English professor has already cracked the mystery of a 150-year-old slave novel.
The school year has only just begun, but a South Carolina English professor—one Gregg Hecimovich of Winthrop University—has already cracked the mystery of a 150-year-old slave novel. Scholars believe it's the first novel to have been written by an African-American woman.
Here's an abridged timeline of the unlikely story of The Bondwoman's Narrative, the mystery novel in question:
- Some time between 1853 and 1861: A heretofore-unknown slave in North Carolina writes what is later assumed to be a semi-autobiographical story of Hannah Craft, a Southern house slave who escapes a North Carolina plantation from the North. Titled The Bondwoman's Narrative, the book is not published during the author's lifetime.
- After 1861: The clothbound manuscript is left in a New Jersey attic and goes unnoticed for decades. It is credited to "Hannah Crafts," a pseudonym.
- 1948: Dorothy Porter Wesley, a librarian, biographer, and black history archivist at Howard University, purchases the manuscript from "a New York City bookseller" for $85.
- 2001: Renowned African-American history scholar and literary critic Henry Louis Gates spots the title of the manuscript in an antiquarian catalog, where it is described as "a 301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by a female fugitive slave." Intrigued, he pays $8,500 for it at a Swann Galleries auction.
- 2001–2002: Gates confirms the veracity of the manuscript. (Said one bookseller: "I can say unequivocally that the manuscript was written before 1861, because had it been written afterward, it would have most certainly contained some mention of the war or at least secession." Other experts analyzed the ink and paper.) Despite leafing through census records and other documents, he's unable to solve the mystery of the author's identity. But publishers grow interested
- 2002: Warner Books publishes the manuscript, with an introduction and appendix by Gates. It becomes a best seller, and the original manuscript finds a new home at Yale.
- 2013: Gregg Hecimovich finally solves the mystery, or so he claims. The writer, he says, was a slave by the name of Hannah Bond, whose life closely mirrored her protagonist's: she escaped by disguising herself as a boy and eventually lived in upstate New York with the Crafts family, hence her pseudonym.
According to The New York Times, Hecimovich's discovery was confirmed by "wills, diaries, handwritten almanacs, and public records." Gates, among other scholars, have vouched for his accuracy:
“Words cannot express how meaningful this is to African-American literary studies,” [Gates] said in an interview. “It revolutionizes our understanding of the canon of black women’s literature.”
Professor Gates said that Professor Hecimovich’s discovery answers one of the large and lingering questions that has vexed him for more than a decade about the author of the book.
Newly verified, Bond's book might well be included in literature courses alongside some of history's most storied slave narratives, including Frederick Douglass's A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative.
But given The Bondwoman's Narrative's tremendously unlikely path to discovery and fame, consider the number of similar texts from slaves that have been lost to 150 years of history.
Update Friday, 9/20: Dr. Gates has taken to The Root to provide some context as to his role in the discovery of the text and the author's identity. Read his account here.
Title page: public domain, via Wikimedia