Possibly the first novel written by a black woman slave, this work is both a historically important literary event and a gripping autobiographical story in its own right.
When her master is betrothed to a woman who conceals a tragic secret, Hannah Crafts, a young slave on a wealthy North Carolina plantation, runs away in a bid for her freedom up North. Pursued by slave hunters, imprisoned by a mysterious and cruel captor, held by sympathetic strangers, and forced to serve a demanding new mistress, she finally makes her way to freedom in New Jersey. Her compelling story provides a fascinating view of American life in the mid-1800s and the literary conventions of the time. Written in the 1850's by a runaway slave, THE BONDSWOMAN'S NARRATIVE is a provocative literary landmark and a significant historical event that will captivate a diverse audience.
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. In this volume's lively, provocative introduction, Gates, Harvard chair of African-American studies, describes his discovery of a handwritten manuscript from the collection of Dorothy Porter Wesley, the famous Howard University librarian, in an auction. Identified in the auction catalogue as a "fictionalized biography... of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts," the manuscript, Gates thought, might be the "first novel written by a woman who had been a slave." After purchasing it, he undertook the painstaking work of authenticating it and determining its author. Though Dr. Joe Nickell (the sleuth who proved the Jack the Ripper diaries fraudulent) firmly limits the manuscript's composition to 1853 to 1861 and Gates locates a few candidates for authorship, the historical Hannah Crafts remains elusive. Whoever Hannah Crafts was and about that there is sure to be some discussion she was a talented storyteller. Though Crafts appears self-taught and borrows from many sources influences include other slave narratives, 19th-century sentimental and gothic novels and, as Gates noted in a letter to the New Yorker, Charles Dickens she propels her story along, vividly describing the heroes and villains she entangles in her multiple plots. A mulatto, Hannah grows up a house slave in Virginia, learning to read in secret. When her master at last marries, Hannah becomes a maid to the new mistress, a woman who seems haunted. In fact, she is hunted: someone who holds proof that her mother is a slave is blackmailing her. Knowing her mistress will be sold if exposed, Hannah encourages her to flee, and flees with her. Thus begins Hannah's journey, as she passes through the hands of prison guard, slave trader, benevolent caretaker, mean and petty masters and finally to freedom.The style is sentimental and effusive, but it is also winning. Crafts's portrayal of the Wheelers a small-minded but ambitious couple who prefer to "live at the public expense" is incisive and utterly familiar. Though Gates chose to touch up Crafts's punctuation, he left her spelling as is and included her revisions, which were remarkably few. Crafts clearly understood the needs of her narrative and the conventions of the 19th-century novel in a way that many first novelists (of any century) don't. While scholars will have to decide whether this is "the unadulterated 'voice' of the fugitive slave herself," lay readers can simply enjoy Crafts's remarkable story and Gates's own story of discovering her.