In Search of Hannah Crafts
ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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Buy *In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman's Narrative* online

In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman's Narrative
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed.
Basic Books
384 pages
December 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This is a collection of critical essays surrounding both the prose and the provenance of a recently discovered manuscript entitled The Bondswoman's Narrative.

The discovery of the manuscript and its many probes for possible forgery are probably more interesting to the average reader than these essays, which are thick with the language of literary criticism and a lot of high falutin' theory. This in no way detracts from the value of In Search Of... but should serve as an advisory to someone who'd like to read the book itself, without a lot of cobwebs swinging across the path.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a recognized scholar, chair of the department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, and Hollis Robbins is director of the Black Periodic Literature Project at the W.E.B. Dubois Institute, also at Harvard. Gates was recuperating from surgery and looking for various restful academic projects when he came across notice of a manuscript to be sold at auction. It appeared to be the authentic reminiscences of a slave woman, offered by a source considered to be unimpeachable. The more he heard about the manuscript, the more Gates became convinced of its probable authenticity, and he determined to buy it. In the end that turned out to be quite easy and notably inexpensive.

Then followed a series of tests and exhaustive readings of the manuscript by experts, resulting in the conclusion in every case that it was not a forgery or a hoax but a true novel, the first known fictional work by an African American on American soil.

Hannah Crafts, a light-skinned black woman who lived in bondage in Virginia (depicted as North Carolina in the tale), and whose master's name has been established to be a Mr. Wheeler, wrote a book not entirely true nor a total fabrication, concerning the life and trials of a slave woman who ultimately escapes to the North.

The book is not of great literary merit. Had it been written by a white lady of leisure, it would scarcely hold a candle to Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example. It borrows much from Dickens and other popular writers of the day, writers whose works Crafts could have delved into while working as a house servant. It contains many of the simplistic devices, remarkable coincidences and long rambling sentences of the romantic novels of the time. In fact, portions of it could be seen as very nearly plagiarized, suggesting that Crafts would have had to have had access to the books she wished to plagiarize at the time she wrote her narrative, or that she had a prodigious, perhaps even photographic memory, which seems at least as likely. In any case, plagiarism is not greatly frowned upon in the creation of a potboiler, and one assumes that had Crafts had more time and perhaps some small recognition for her writerly gifts, she might have written more in depth.

What remains is a work perhaps not even meant to be read widely. There is some surmise that the author ended her days as a schoolteacher and may have composed the manuscript solely for the edification of her students. In the narrative, we are given a ground-level view of the life of slaves, from the most exalted and fortunate to the saddest and most degraded. Hannah herself is a resolvedly moral person, who endures most of what slavery requires and only decides to make an escape when she can no longer see herself as a righteous person if she continues to accept the circumstances forced upon her. This is in itself a remarkable determination, the sort that would only be made by a most remarkable woman.

None of the scholars who examine Crafts' work in In Search Of... exercise any doubt as to the provenance of the book. Dissecting is their job no less than a surgeon's, and they do it well. It is a marvel to the average person -- and I consider myself to me be one -- that so many can say so much about one rather short story. But it can be fairly noted that the unique properties of the work being dissected justify their zeal.

It left this reviewer with a glut of information which was not, however, so overwhelming as to keep me from wanting to read The Bondwoman's Narrative in a whole and uninterrupted format.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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