Young in the Chicago Tribune on Two Books Recounting Stories of Slavery

Monday, August 12, 2002 - 12:00

This book review ran in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, August 11, 2002.

"The corpse seemed to leer horridly, to gibe and beckon and point its long skinny fingers towards me. . . . [It] seemed to rise and stand over me, and press with its cold leaden hand against my heart."

This creepy image of the undead would be at home in stories by Edgar Allan Poe or in George Romero's film "Night of the Living Dead," but it appears in Hannah Crafts' "The Bondwoman's Narrative," a 19th Century, autobiographical novel by a black woman about her experiences under and escape from slavery. Published now for the first time, "The Bondwoman's Narrative" is a remarkable work that shows the deep connections between race and Gothic horror in American culture.

These connections go back at least as far as Poe, whose stories of white people in psychic distress are indirectly infused with the fears generated by slave uprisings like those of Poe's near-contemporary, Nat Turner. These connections have long been forged by black as well as white writers, and by women as well as men. Toni Morrison's ghost daughters and Ralph Ellison's invisible man are the best-known figures of an African-American Gothic tradition, and they are now joined by those in "The Bondwoman's Narrative." The cadaverous apparitions, claustrophobic houses and frightening landscapes that haunt this evocative work tell slavery's horror stories in ways that more realist modes perhaps cannot. Like Morrison and Ellison, Crafts suggests the strengths of the Gothic as a literary form of resistance for those whose literal worlds already constitute a night of the living dead.

The significance of this novel is inseparable from how it has come to be published. In antebellum America, the words of black authors were ordinarily heavily edited by white abolitionists. By contrast, "The Bondwoman's Narrative" seems to have been an unpublished manuscript that was, as editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it, "unedited, unaffected, unglossed, [and] unaided" by Crafts' contemporaries. The novel appears now because it has been edited by Gates, chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard University. For 20 years, Gates has been bringing new visibility to 19th Century black women's writing: In 1982 he recovered "Our Nig," a novel written in 1859 by Harriet Wilson, a free black woman. "The Bondwoman's Narrative" may have been written even earlier, "possibly the first novel written by a black woman and definitely the first novel written by a woman who had been a slave."

Gates explains his encounter with this work in a long introductory essay that reads like a lively detective story. He first became aware of Crafts when he was leafing through an auction catalog and saw a listing for an unpublished manuscript being sold from the collection of the late Dorothy Porter, distinguished librarian of African-American literature. Bedridden with complications from hip surgery, Gates arranged for a colleague to bid on the manuscript, but once he had obtained it (his turned out to be the only bid), his work was just beginning.

To authenticate that it was from the era of American slavery, he hired an expert on the dating of historical documents and enlisted researchers in archives throughout the country. From these investigations, Gates draws several conclusions about the text's authenticity.

The first is that of historical dating: The manuscript's ink, paper and other material evidence are consistent with being from the 1850s. More specifically, "The Bondwoman's Narrative" seems to date from 1855 (because it cites the real-life case of a slave's escape that year) to 1861 (because it does not mention the Civil War).

The second, less straightforward question of authentication is that of the race of the author. Some 19th Century works that purported to be by African-Americans were actually written by white people. Here Gates, building on notes left by Porter, argues that Crafts is African-American based on how she represents white and black characters. In virtually all works from this period by white authors--including the most famous novel of 19th Century America, Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin"--black characters are introduced with descriptions of skin color, hair and other racial markers, while white characters are presented without racial identification. By contrast, Gates argues, Crafts "tends to treat the blackness of her characters as the default," deferring or otherwise downplaying mention of their race. This is a fascinating argument, with broader applications for discussions of race today, since it is still the case that white people rarely describe other white people first as white, while they frequently describe non-white people by mention of their race.

Gates then tries to identify an actual Hannah Crafts, but he does not find the historical record complete enough to do so. Hannah Crafts--the name of the book's protagonist as well as author--may, in any case, be a pseudonym. Gates does suggest that one of Crafts' masters in the novel, a Mr. Wheeler, was North Carolina slaveowner John Hill Wheeler. The real Wheeler left behind a catalog of the books in his library--excerpted in the appendix--and it makes for wonderful literary sleuthing to identify in "The Bondwoman's Narrative" passages that echo the books that Wheeler owned and that the real Crafts, if she was one of Wheeler's slaves, may have read.

"The Bondwoman's Narrative" begins with Crafts' account of her childhood, focuses on her experiences in slavery--including two dramatic escapes from different masters--and ends happily with her life in freedom in New Jersey. Influenced by sources ranging from Charles Dickens to slave narratives, the novel takes up many topics important to 19th Century writing, such as those of passing as white and cross-dressing. Crafts' first escape from slavery is with her mistress, who turns out to be passing; later, another woman escapes from slavery by cross-dressing; later still, Crafts, whose skin is also "almost white," escapes from the Wheelers' by cross-dressing and passing. Throughout, the novel is centered on relationships between women. It is also wrenching and inventive in its representation of one of the central agonies of slavery: the separation of mothers and children.

An unforgettable subplot, for example, traces the tragic story of a slave named Rose and her beloved dog, the favorite of a daughter who has been sold into slavery in Alabama. When her cruel master orders her to kill the dog, Rose refuses, and as punishment woman and dog are suspended horrifically from a linden tree. Rose remains committed to the dog--and the daughter it symbolizes--to the last. The dog dies, as does Rose, but she also gets a form of revenge against the master by haunting the tree after her death. Her silenced tongue is restored, Philomela-like, in the sounds made by the tree, and for Crafts and the other slaves who hear this story, "the creaking of its branches filled our bosoms with supernatural dread."

This story of familial separation is, then, also a Gothic plot, complete with a protagonist who becomes a haunted and haunting tree. The original source of horror is the cruel white master, but the slave woman, Rose, reclaims the tools of the Gothic to create a legacy for later generations. "The Bondwoman's Narrative" is suffused with such Gothic moments, from Crafts' description of looking at the family portraits in her master's house, their "stony eyes motionless and void of expression as those of an exhumed corpse," to her account of landscapes, as seen when she is fleeing from slavery, in which, "Trees in the dusky gloom took the forms of men, and stumps and hillocks were strangely transferred into blood-hounds crouching to spring on their prey." All the novel's houses are haunted, including the cabin to which Crafts and her mistress escape (which features bloodstains and hatchets with attached human hair), as is the prison to which they are later taken, where the bite of a rat makes her "terrified imagination [begin] to conjure strange fancies."

Crafts' mistress, who fears exposure by a sinister white man aptly named Mr. Trappe, is even more susceptible to Gothic nightmares. She begins to imagine herself "pursued by an invisible being, who sought to devour her flesh and crush her bones. . . . 'He tears my flesh, he drinks my blood.' " This sounds like a vampire chronicle from the era of American slavery.

Fear of her bloodthirsty enemy drives Crafts' mistress insane, but "The Bondwoman's Narrative" is the record of Crafts' own crafty triumph over the horrors of slavery. She even declares her mastery over fear itself. When other slaves at the Wheelers' worry that strange shadows mean a ghost is afoot, Crafts suspects, correctly, that two slaves are meeting in secret, and proudly declares:

"I seldom gave way to imaginary terror. I found enough in the stern realities of life to disquiet and perplex."

Ironically, though, what this novel shows is that these two conditions are not mutually exclusive: in Hannah Crafts' writing, "imaginary terror" is not a retreat from "the stern realities of life" but a way to express their full horrors.

Writing fiction, Crafts could give full expression to Gothic imagery, but an extraordinary nonfiction example of the interplay between slavery and Gothic horror is provided in "The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown," a slave narrative first published in 1849, revised in 1851, and now valuably reprinted with an introduction by Richard Newman--Gates' bidder at auction on the Crafts manuscript--and a foreword by Gates.

The 1849 edition of his story was written by white abolitionist Charles Stearns; the 1851 version, which this edition reprints, was presented as "written by himself." Whatever its ambiguities of authorship, the core of Brown's story is well-established: To escape from slavery, he had himself mailed from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia, during the course of which escape he was confined in a coffin-like, 3-by-2-foot box for 27 hours, often upside down. After this successful escape, he became a celebrity in America and England, henceforth known as Henry "Box" Brown. The image of the box as a metaphor for slavery's confinement and a literal means of escape from it is a richly evocative one. The story of Brown's escape, which he told repeatedly to audiences and had dramatized in a set of panoramic paintings, has in turn been transformed by other African-Americans, including artist Glenn Ligon and filmmaker Charles Burnett.

Read together with "The Bondwoman's Narrative," the story of Henry "Box" Brown suggests a Gothic nightmare of claustrophobic enclosure made viscerally real. "I had risen as it were from the dead," Brown says of his triumphal emergence from the box. This resurrection suggests Christ--but also Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, other famous figures of the time--rising from the dead. In the remarkable books that Crafts and Brown left behind, horror serves not only as a surprisingly realistic medium through which to represent slavery, but also as a powerful means of resistance to it. The reader who steps into the haunted houses built by Crafts, and the claustrophobic box occupied by Brown, encounters unforgettable reconstructions of the horror--slavery--upon which America itself was built.

Elizabeth Young, author of "Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War," teaches English at Mount Holyoke College.

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