New Collection of Essays (Précis)


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

Precis Pending

Hannah Crafts's Sense of an Ending

William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The subtitle of The Bondwoman’s Narrative identifies its author, Hannah Crafts, as a fugitive slave from North Carolina. If she was a fugitive slave, then The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a truly unique text, the first slave narrative to have been authored by an African American woman, and the first slave narrative by anyone that has survived in manuscript form. If, on the other hand, Hannah Crafts was white, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, though an intriguing act of literary ventriloquism, does not compel attention and analysis except from specialists in nineteenth-century American literature and history.

With a text of uncertain origin, such as The Bondwoman’s Narrative, there are two general ways to attempt to ferret out its authorship. One can try to track down the author through historical research, and one can attempt to extrapolate the identity of the author by comparing what she or he has written to the work of others. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the editor of the first published edition of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, has done a considerable amount of research in an effort to confirm the existence of a historical Hannah Crafts about whom enough biographical information exists to link her with certainty to the narrative that bears her name. Gates himself does not claim to have found the Hannah Crafts who authored this narrative. He readily admits that "Hannah Crafts" may be only a pseudonym adopted by a fugitive slave author for protection against recapture. Still, in the introduction to his edition of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Gates advances several good reasons for concluding that the author of this narrative, Hannah Crafts - whoever she was - was a black woman. Gates also presents evidence supporting the contention that Hannah Crafts was a slave, indeed a fugitive slave who was claimed as property by a character, John Wheeler, actually named in the narrative itself. Having been more than happy to join in the hunt for a historical Hannah, it was my pleasure to help Gates identify the John Wheeler of the narrative with the John Hill Wheeler to whom the historical Hannah Crafts may well have belonged. In my own view, even though we lack conclusive evidence proving the racial?or even sexual?identity of the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, there is enough reliable evidence suggesting its author may well have been an African American woman to warrant looking at her in light of the second way I have described of pursuing an author's identity, by comparing her text to its relevant contemporaries.

In this brief inquiry into The Bondwoman’s Narrative I will ask, what might the ending of this text tell us about its author? If Hannah Crafts was a black woman writing sometime in the late 1850s, as the evidence Gates has marshaled suggests, why did she choose to end her narrative as she does? Does the story end as it does simply because that's what actually happened to Hannah Crafts, in which case The Bondwoman’s Narrative is just what it appears to be, an autobiography. Or does The Bondwoman’s Narrative end as it does because that is how its author - Hannah Crafts or whoever she was - wanted the story to end, in which case The Bondwoman’s Narrative is not what it appears to be, that is, it is not an autobiography; it is a novel. If The Bondwoman’s Narrative is an autobiography, then its closest literary kin is the fugitive slave narrative, which was the dominant and most popular form of African American storytelling, factual or fictional, in print in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. If, on the other hand, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a novel, not an autobiography, then it should be read in the context of the dominant and most popular form of European American fiction in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, the "trials and triumph" novels by white American women that Nina Baym has termed simply "women's fiction."

Because no one has yet determined who "Hannah Crafts" was or whether the narrative attributed to her is an autobiography or a novel, I will discuss The Bondwoman’s Narrative in relation to both black-authored slave narratives and white-authored "women's fiction." My purpose is not to categorize The Bondwoman’s Narrative as either autobiography or novel, for in fact I think, at least at this juncture, that the narrative is probably a blend of both. By looking at how The Bondwoman’s Narrative participates in both a "black" and a "white" literary tradition, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion about the identity of "Hannah Crafts." But by focusing on the ending of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, I want to suggest how the choices "Hannah Crafts" made between the two literary traditions most available to her shed some light, however partial, on the motives and goals of the shadowy author of this intriguing text.

Slave Narratives: An Overview

William L. Andrews, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Precis pending

Hannah Crafts, novelist, or, How a silent observer became a dabster at invention

Ann Fabian, Rutgers University

The Bondwoman’s Narrative is an example of the kind of story often produced by unschooled writers. It has all the clumsy plot structures, changing tenses, impossible coincidences, and heterogeneous elements of the best of them. Exploring clues in the text can help examine questions such as, What elements does the author use to tell her story? How does the narrator construct her authority? And how does she turn her tale into an abolitionist narrative? And why was this book, obviously written for a public, never published?

Crafts's borrowings from popular literary forms are many and obvious. Like many one-time authors, she explains to readers how she has learned what she knows. Hannah Crafts carefully establishes herself up as the teller of this story or these stories. Sometimes it's a bit of a stretch and the chains of cognition don't always work, but she tries to tell the reader how she knows what she knows. She is very curious. She is a good observer ("I have said that I always had a quiet way of observing things," she reminds us and to prove the point, she inserts elaborate descriptions of the decoration of houses) and a lucky eavesdropper ("…seated myself with a book behind the heavy damask curtains") . Crafts is a "repository of secrets". She is a reader and a reader of the Bible, although it is clear she has also read lots of other texts too, possibly even a few murderers' confessions. The bloody axe in the cabin is a nice touch.

Crafts also knows Byron and the tragedies of the ancient world-Caesar, The Orestia . And wonderfully, the art of a good business letter. "It opened as business letters usually do, very brief and concise." She is also, we learn often, a great favorite with the children, by implication, a good storyteller.

In this essay, I will trace the presence of stories and storytellers in the narrative. I will look at the circulation of information, the patterns of revelation, the power of gossip and blackmail. But I will also look at why this story did not itself circulate into an American public. Publication is not something to take for granted, and I explore some to the reasons why she might not have been able to publish the book in the late 1850s or early 1860s. I will use work on the history of book publishing to look at the avenues that might have been open to her. What does the narrative tell us about her knowledge of publishing and publication?

Black Arts and Crafts: Literary Alchemy in The Bondwoman’s Narrative

Hollis Robbins, Princeton University

The title of this essay is a triple pun: it refers to the (ostensible) color and name of the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Hannah Crafts; it refers to the late twentieth-century Black Arts Movement, which sought to "affirm the integral relationship between black art and black people;" and it refers to the so-called black arts of alchemy - ancient processes of transmutation and extraction. The term black arts will tie together the three themes of this essay: first, that there is something about the purloining of a white text by a black author (or of a black text by a white author) that fascinates; second, that the resulting textual amalgamation is an extraordinarily valuable literary artifact; and third, that the early assessment of this recuperated novel as solely an African American text demonstrates one negative aspect of the otherwise positive Black Arts legacy: that compartmentalizing a text can preclude a recognition of its more rebellious maneuvers.

The first part of this essay will emphasize the craft of this novel's production?its "sampling" or extraction of sizeable quantities of text from several well-known contemporary texts, most notably Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852) and Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1818)?as well as the novel's dramatic alchemical moment, in which the mixture of white face powder and smelling salts turns the face of Hannah's mistress black. The borrowings from Bleak House are extensive; this must be acknowledged at once. But I would not call Hannah Crafts a plagiarist. In the first place, her possible status as "property" (or fugitive property) complicates and perhaps mitigates her act of violating intellectual property rights, and in the second, her craft in transforming and transmuting these borrowed passages suggests that the more appropriate term for her act is "bricolage." (This concept comes, of course, from Claude Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind (1966), in which he defines the bricoleur as a tinkerer or craftsperson who uses the available materials to build a product whose shape is, in many ways, a function of what was found lying around.) That is, she does not pass off Dickens's words as her own; rather she transforms his words into something that becomes her own. Yes, perhaps she takes advantage of the original artist's creative effort, but her borrowings are productive and interpretive: she clearly knew his text very well and understood its dramatic appeal and political sensibilities.

The second part of this essay will present a detailed reading of Hannah Crafts's Mr. Trappe as a sly transmutation of Charles Dickens's Mr. Tulkinghorn. Both characters are successful, underhanded, black-clad lawyers who stalk their prey with documents. Both are revenged and are found shot to death in their rooms, face down on the floor. Crafts also transforms Esther Summerson into Hannah, a parentless character to whom much happens, but who will never articulate what she really wants.

The third part of this essay will briefly discuss the political implications of Crafts's literary amalgamation. Is this The Bondwoman’s Narrative a British text or an African American one? Should it have been more obvious that the building materials of the novel are not homegrown? What are the implications of this borrowing on the community of readers assumed by the writer and produced by her text? Whose voice are we hearing? I will argue that the words of Charles Dickens and Walter Scott ought to have been more audible to the early readers of Crafts's text. Four things in particular stand out as unlikely: turrets, cloaks, drawing rooms, and embroidery. None of these terms appears in the narratives of Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, or Henry "Box" Brown, for example, but they are everywhere in Dickens and Scott. In slave narratives generally one finds garrets, chambers, parlors, apartments, rooms, garments, darning and sewing needles, but not the particular accouterments of cold-weather romances. The importance of elements such as cloaks and drawing rooms is in their poetic and imaginative nature: Crafts uses them to create set pieces of betrayal, concealment, forgiveness, and revenge. That these scenes with their borrowed terminology "work" as part of a bondwoman's narrative suggests that Crafts's vision was more imaginative than autobiographical.

The Bondwoman's Narrative and Uncle Tom's Cabin

Jean Fagan Yellin, Pace University

It is not surprising that The Bondwoman’s Narrative echoes Uncle Tom's Cabin. The popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling 1852 novel moved publishers, who had avoided the slavery issue for fear of losing "the southern market," to print more than a dozen fictional responses to Stowe's book. Even the feminist theoretician Sarah Grimke penned an antislavery novel. Who knows how many other manuscripts?like Hannah Crafts's?remained unpublished?

Like those that did see print, The Bondwoman’s Narrative bears many similarities to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Following Stowe's lead, Crafts links the literary gothic with its American subject: chattel slavery. Stowe's book resonates throughout The Bondwoman’s Narrative. The new mistress of Lindendale suggests Stowe's Cassy; Hayes's discussion with the jailer about handling slave women recalls the exchange among Stowe's Haley, Loker, and Marks; Louise, like Stowe's Lucy, drowns herself when she learns that her child has been sold; Charlotte and William's plans for escape recall Stowe's Eliza and George Harris; even old Rose's refusal to drown her dog suggests George's doomed little Carlo. Stowe's final scenes of Eliza's reconstituted three-generational family shadow the appearance of Hannah's lost mother and Crafts's happy ending.

But there are important differences, as well. These go beyond Crafts's gothic plots, which have no counterparts in Uncle Tom's Cabin, involving Hannah's mistress and the evil Trappe, and Lizzy's story of Cosgrove's seraglio. Crafts presents herself as a Christian woman, but unlike Stowe's narrator, she centers her story not on earthly martyrdom and heavenly triumph, but on her struggles within the system of chattel slavery. Like the slave narratives, but unlike Stowe's novel, which dramatizes the dilemma that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law presented to white Americans, Crafts's book focuses on the problems of its slave narrator. Further, The Bondwoman’s Narrative presents no extended discussion of the differences between the "races." Although Crafts's narrator praises Mrs. Henry's hand, "so white and soft and beautiful," and little Anna's "white beautiful arms," this is mild indeed compared with Stowe's description of Little Eva and Topsy:

There stood the two children, representatives of the two extremes of society. The fair, high-bred child, with her golden head, her deep eyes, her spiritual, noble brow, and prince-like movements; and her black, keen, subtle, cringing, yet acute neighbor. They stood the representatives of their races. The Saxon, born of ages of cultivation, command, education, physical and moral eminence; the Afric, born of ages of oppression, submission, ignorance, toil, and vice! (vol. 2, chapter 20).

While the appearance of Uncle Tom's Cabin certainly inspired Hannah Crafts to write her book, and while Stowe's best seller shaped it in many ways, The Bondwoman’s Narrative makes its own unique statement about slavery and racism in nineteenth-century America.