Written in the 1850s by a runaway slave, THE BONDS- WOMANS NARRATIVE is both an historically important literary event and a gripping autobiographical novel 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. Quite possibly the only novel written by a runaway slave, THE BONDSWOMANS NARRATIVE is a provocative literary landmark and a significant historical event that will captivate a diverse audience.
Few events are more thrilling than the discovery of a buried treasure. Some years ago, when scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was leafing through an auction catalog, he noticed a listing for an unpublished, clothbound manuscript thought to date from the 1850s: "The Bondwoman's Narrative
, by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped from North Carolina." Gates realized that, if genuine, this would be the first novel known to have been written by a black woman in America, as well as the only one by a fugitive slave. He bought the manuscript (there was no competing bid) and began the exhilarating task of confirming the racial identity of the author and the approximate date of composition (circa 1855-59). Gates's excited descriptions of his detective work in the introduction to The Bondwoman's Narrative
will make you want to find promising old manuscripts of your own. He also proposes a couple candidates for authorship, assuming that Hannah Crafts was the real or assumed name of the author, and not solely a pen name.
If Gates is right (his introduction and appendix should convince just about everyone), The Bondwoman's Narrative is a tremendous discovery. But is it a lost masterpiece? No. The novel draws so heavily on the conventions of mid-19th-century fiction--by turns religious, gothic, and sentimental--that it does not have much flavor of its own. The beginning of chapter 13 is a close paraphrase (virtually a cribbing) of the opening of Dickens's Bleak House. This borrowing seems to have escaped Gates, although he does quote the assessment of one scholar, the librarian Dorothy Porter Wesley, who had owned the manuscript before he acquired it, that "the best of the writer's mind was religious and emotional and in her handling of plot the long arm of coincidence is nowhere spared." Although not a striking literary contribution, The Bondwoman's Narrative is well worth reading on historical grounds, especially since it was never published. As Gates argues, these pages provide our first "unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided" glimpse into the mind of a fugitive slave. --Regina Marler