"So amiable and good": Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative and its lineages.
To begin with it is worth reviewing the claims that have been made about what we know about Hannah Crafts's manuscript and why these claims stack up poorly. Firstly, let us turn to the dating. The manuscript's completion must certainly post-date 1853, given the mention of "the equestrian statue of Jackson" in Washington, which was not completed by sculptor Clark Mills until 1853 (Gates "Introduction"; Martin). Other than this, no sure internal dating evidence exists. The types of paper and ink used in the manuscript both suggest an antebellum date of composition, but the manuscript could nevertheless have been written on out-of-date paper stock using an old ink supply, which could have been left lying around until during or after the War (both paper and ink production were inevitably somewhat disrupted). (3) In turn, the fact that the Civil War is not directly mentioned in the text could mean little or nothing, (4) apart from the fact that the manuscript advances on its title page the claim that its author was "recently escaped from North Carolina" (Crafts 1). For this claim to make any real sense, the manuscript would need to have been written some time before Emancipation. The claim could still conceivably have been advanced if the manuscript were written after 1863, but such a claim would stretch credulity--that is, if Crafts's words are to be accepted at face value. But what happens if Crafts's claim is misleading? Suppose Crafts wanted to cash in on the continuing popularity of narratives about slavery--which persisted well after Emancipation? The manuscript could have been completed somewhat later than the early 1860s and yet still advance the claim it did about a "recent escape" if its author had the intention of ensuring that her manuscript reached publication by passing itself off as a newly-found (and not a freshly-written) manuscript; her aim would thus have been to pretend it was a fake fugitive-slave narrative (or a fake African American novel), intended to exploit the still relatively buoyant postbellum market in narratives about slaves--a buoyancy to be signalled, for example, by the numerous reprintings of Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Josiah Henson's The Life of Josiah Henson, first pubhshed in 1849 and reprinted in 1852, 1876 and 1877 (its postbellum sales promoted by Henson's overstated claim on the books' covers that he was Stowe's model for Uncle Tom), and, later on, by William Still's Underground Railroad, which ran into several editions following its release in 1871. (5)
One of the books from which Crafts lifts a passage nearly verbatim is Walter Scott's enormously popular historical novel Rob Roy. (6) Since it is now generally recognised that one of the generic tasks of the classic historical novel is to avoid so far as is possible obvious anachronisms and that Scott is one of the earliest historical novelists to compose his work (if not always successfully) with such an objective generally in mind, another possibility arises: namely, that Crafts, who we know read Rob Roy carefully (she even copied into her manuscript verbatim a passage describing poor jail conditions), understood from Scott's example the required skills of a historical novelist. Her Narrative, in this reading, therefore deliberately eschews all mention of the Civil War, since Crafts was deliberately mindful that any such reference would be anachronistic and thereby expose her claim on her manuscript's frontispiece as fake and her manuscript itself as not composed by a recently escaped slave. Scott perhaps also helped give Crafts inspiration as to how to go about writing a text that seemed authentic not only by avoiding overt anachronisms but also by offering sufficient regional detail to appear convincing (a suggestion which would imply that Crafts was not necessarily a Southerner). Perhaps this explains why, just as the Civil War is never openly mentioned, neither are the deleterious consequences of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act: perhaps Crafts even intended her text to create the impression that it was written somewhat earlier than 1850.
In support of these suggestions, it needs to be pointed out that doubt ought to exist over the assertion that there is no sign whatsoever in Crafts's Narrative of anything post-dating the start of the Civil War. A quite contrary indication is sent by Crafts's passing (and in my argument, accidentally anachronistic) mention of a Washington, D.C., pension controversy, simultaneous with mention of legislators' concern over "army wrongs." To her narrator, Hannah, these pension debates are of significance at that time: "grave senators ... grow eloquent over pensions and army wrongs" (BN 178). Legislators' eloquence on the subjects of "pensions and army wrongs," linked together in this way, would have been unlikely prior to the Civil War. Some debate about Revolutionary War pension problems did rumble on faintly into the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, other, intervening wars provoked minor debates over war pensions. But the way The Bondwoman's Narrative raises the issue makes pension debate sound like a current cause celebre in Washington. So, whilst war pensions had been discussed prior to the Civil War, these debates did not occur in a sustained way and were not conducted in a public forum: army veterans' pensions did not become a major political issue until the Civil War. Probably 1862 is the earliest date when Washington controversies reached prominence and, for obvious reasons, the issue becomes more pressing in the decades after the war, especially in the lead-up to the passage of the 1879 Arrears Act (Grant). (7)
A composition date for Crafts's narrative somewhere between 1861-62 and 1879 suggests itself on this evidence: at the point when war pensions are anachronistically brought up--that is, at the time it is pretended that the manuscript was being composed--Hannah offers a first-person, present-tense reflection on her past experiences. For us as readers, then, this mention of a war pension controversy raises the issue of just when this manuscript was written. In sum, a composition date before 1861 must be held to be unlikely, for Crafts's observations about Washington pension debates suggest that we are dealing with a text composed during or (more likely) after the Civil War. The anachronistic reference to pensions, I contend, exposes Crafts's Narrative as a historical novel rather than an antebellum text. At the very least, the range of possible dates for the manuscript's composition needs extending. The period 1853 to 1861 no longer adequately covers the possibilities: the manuscript could have been composed as late as the 1870s.
My reluctance to accept a composition date before 1861 is further supported by the way in which the account of the theft of food by Charlotte in The Bondwoman "s Narrative resembles Pip's theft of food for Magwitch in Dickens's Great Expectations, serialised during 1860 and 1861 and only published as a book in 1861, even down to the depiction of a "rush of blood" in the guilty cheeks of both Pip and Charlotte, whose "cheeks burned" (Crafts 136).
In this respect, Crafts's narrative also owes something of a debt to William and Ellen Crafts' slave narrative, including the use of crossdressing (depicting a female disguised as male) to assist in their escape. If Crafts's surname is a pseudonym, it is probably chosen as a species of tribute to the Crafts. lust possibly her debt to the Crafts derives from her having heard the Crafts during one of their speaking tours. But more probably it is owed to their published narrative. Additionally, Hannah Crafts's narrative makes much use of dialogue, which is also a particular feature of the Crafts' book. Yet the Crafts' narrative was not published until 1860. Likewise, William Still's Underground Railroad was first published in 1871 and carries accounts not only of William and Ellen Crafts' escape but also of the Passmore Williamson case, both of which help shape Crafts's manuscript (see below). Furthermore, Still's 1871 book refers to other cross-dressing escape incidents (44-46, 73-84, 382-91). All of this circumstantial evidence cumulatively presses us to consider the proposal that The Bondwoman's Narrative was certainly written later--and even, perhaps, much later--than 1860.
There is little need for the reader to believe that Crafts intimately knew the family of John Hill Wheeler, the proslavery advocate and slaveholder. The Wheelers lived somewhat in the public eye, especially as a consequence of what became known as the "Passmore Willamson case" (Anon.). This was an incident in which the Wheelers' bondservant, Jane Johnson, escaped while passing through Philadelphia with Wheeler. The controversy this event stirred up made Wheeler "the most famous slaveholder in the whole of America." Furthermore, a pamphlet was published about the case and Wheeler's life was also somewhat detailed in newspapers, for he was a public figure (Gates, "Introduction" xlii). Yet the date Wheeler sold his Carolina plantation--1853--means that the extent to which Hannah Crafts can be regarded as writing with strict autobiographical accuracy about "her" Wheelers is constrained: she talks of returning to the Wheeler's plantation, but if she replaced Jane Johnson as the Wheeler's bondservant, as Gates suggests she did, then she could not have joined the Wheelers' retinue until after Johnson's escape in 1855--that is to say, after 1853 (Parramore 364-65; Flynn 371-405).
In turn, Gates's genealogical research into the surnames of the people named in Crafts's manuscript--Cosgrove, Henry, Vincent and Hawkins--proves little. Gates seeks to link these surnames to those of Southern antebellum families, but clearly the first three are common surnames, the last only slightly more uncommon; all four surnames could have reasonably been invented by The Bondwoman's Narrative's author (Parramore 366).
There is, then, no convincing reason to accept Crafts's manuscript as an antebellum narrative based upon actual experience. However, a collection of essays edited by Gates largely takes a different line. This appeared in 2004, two years after Crafts's work was first published. Reading this collection of essays on Crafts at one sitting is a curious experience, as interpretations arise in one essay only to be altered (or even contradicted) in another. Quite plainly, the contributors would have gained much from reading each other's work more systematically. To pick (unfairly) on one example: Lawrence Buell, in "Bondwoman Unbound," suggests that the phrase "They know nothing" reveals Hannah to be a snob (23). But as Hollis Robbins later implicitly (but not explicitly) points out, Crafts is referring to the crossing sweeper, Jo's, often-repeated sentiments in Dickens's Bleak House.. "I don't know nothink" (274; Robbins 71-86; Dickens, Bleak House 272, 274, 279). Crafts might best be understood to be making a point about the way in which slaves' subjection to systematic deprivation is an experience held in common (though far more appallingly) with what might be fairly described as an international lumpenproletariat, particularly in terms of educational opportunity. Gates's collection of essays, full of good readings as it is, also tends unquestioningly to embrace his assumption that Crafts is just what she says she is, an African American escaped slave, writing from experience. But she may not be, and the phrase "recently escaped" might be taken as more or less misleading. If, for the sake of argument, we take this to be the case, a raft of possibilities opens up.
For example, in 2004 I proposed a possible counter argument that was subsequently advanced, on different grounds, by Bernier and Newman in 2005. (8) This argument calls into question Crafts's ethnicity: not only may Crafts be more of a historical novelist--and far less autobiographical than Gates's essayists think--but she may also not even be African American.
One major impediment stands in the way of argument; Crafts's words on her title page:
By Hannah Crafts
A Fugitive Slave
Recently Escaped from North Carolina
This formulaic title, falling well within the conventions of slave narratives, makes the open claim that the author is African American. The problem in accepting it is that there were many instances of fakery in the abolitionist movement--for example, of African Americans passing themselves off as fugitive slaves in order to benefit from white patronage. Indeed many abolitionists had, by the 1850s, become reflexively suspicious. In 1848, for example, William Lloyd Garrison earnestly sought to expose a "colored man," whose profession that he needed money "to buy his mother" he saw as bogus, whilst Harriet Wilson, in Our Nig, describes Frado's husband as a charlatan, a "professed fugitive" (Garrison n.p.; Wilson 62).
Gates does consider this argument, only to dismiss it on the basis that, despite such a legacy of deception, there are few examples of antebellum white writers (or, one might add, postbellum white writers) passing themselves off as black and that those who attempted it were quickly unsuccessful. Gates correctly points out that Mattie Griffiths and Richard Hildreth were soon exposed as white, not black. However, both The Autobiography of a Female Slave (1857) and The Slave; or, the Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836) carry in their titles the assertion they are autobiographical in a way which Crafts's novel does not but which slave narratives conventionally do, thus drawing attention to the issue of their authenticity (Griffiths; Hildreth, The Slave). (9) By contrast, The Bondwoman "s Narrative is more evasive. It is true that, with complete conventionality, its "Preface" does claim to be "a record of plain unvarnished fact" and to offer "the truth." But Crafts's preface also feels it necessary to point out that what follows "makes no pretension to romance" and is "stranger than fiction" (3). Crafts's paratextual denials evoke the characteristics of both romance and fiction and remind the reader that the preface has already ambiguously described the text that follows as a "literary venture" (3). (10) It is perhaps, then, worth recalling that a book's formulaic claim that it offers the unvarnished truth is no guarantee of authenticity. Indeed, one might rather prefer to adopt Tzvetan Todorov's caution that "invocation of truth is a sign of lying" (61). Furthermore, claiming to offer unvarnished fact is one traditional opening trope of gothic fiction, almost as often as it is in the slave narrative (Ballinger, et. al. 212; Hogle, 93-104). Consequently, since its publication, The Bondwoman's Negative has been repeatedly linked to the gothic genre and regarded as a fictional venture steeped in melodrama. (11)
The reason for this connection is straightforward: Hannah's story, that of a slave who, after a long history of service as a body-servant, eventually decides to flee from her owners as soon as she is demoted to the status of a field hand, is almost literally highjacked near its start by an intensely melodramatic episode that takes over the manuscript for nearly one-third of its total length (over 75 pages out of 235 in Gates's edition). This striking episode involves details of how a linden tree became haunted by a curse on Hannah's master's family, and how its creaking portends a disaster which immediately follows: Hannah's new mistress (her master's new bride) discovers from the family lawyer, Trappe, that she has African American blood in her veins, having been substituted, as a baby, for a dead white infant; the episode places Crafts's novel in a tradition involving the exchange of babies, dead or otherwise (Sollors 41-50). The news puts Hannah's mistress in Trappe's power and causes both her flight (and Hannah's, as she volunteers to accompany her) and her husband's suicide. In what follows, Hannah and her mistress, in a series of helter-skelter adventures, are pursued, captured, and incarcerated, escape again and hide out in a cabin in the centre of a forest before being recaptured and finally delivered back to lawyer Trappe (by now their legal master). The discovery that Lawyer Trappe now owns her causes Hannah's mistress to collapse and die, and the episode ends. This melodramatic narrative possesses a gripping pace and verve, from Hannah and her Mistress's resolve to take flight through their incarceration in a rat-infested prison and beyond:
"My dear good Hannah" [my Mistress] said "I think you had better stay...." But I interrupted her. "And leave you to go forth alone. My dear indulgent mistress--never, never." Just then the rising wind howled mournfully around the house, and the Linden creaked audibly. I shuddered at the sound.... ... I sank into a painful and uneasy slumber..... the result of over-taxed exertion mental and physical. Then came a sensation of bodily pain, and presently a consciousness that some animal was trying to devour me. I started up in horror and grasped a huge rat that was nibbling at my cheek. Releasing him as quickly he ran frightened into his hole, which the faint rays of the lamp rendered visible in the farthest corner of the cell. (50-51; 79)
Such passages are obviously deeply indebted to the gothic. However, I want to focus upon this episode's--indeed, the whole text's--more broadly melodramatic aspects: how Crafts's work, throughout its plot- driven narrative and often heavily stylized, even stereotypical representations, probes complex yet genetic issues of personal exchange (in every sense of the word), iteratively involving the risk of violation and accompanied by intense emotion (the threat of "ruin"). Body- centeredness, thus prominent in The Bondwoman's Narrative, is a characteristic of melodrama that makes it such a useful genre for slave narrative to draw upon.
Inevitably, then, given its subject, Crafts's manuscript possesses close correlations with the slave narrative, which engages melodrama's stock types to explore its core themes: slave narrative often expresses itself through a set of stock dramatic tableaux (slave auctions, whipping posts, separations of mother and child; revelations of white Christian hypocrisy, etc.). But Crafts's story does these things differently: slave narratives never resort to the sort of mainstream ingredients of melodrama (such as dungeon rats and ruins hidden deep in forests) in anything like the display found in The Bondwoman 's Narrative. Crafts's narrative shifts much further towards participating in the vibrant transatlantic literary exchanges of gothic writing than is the case with slave narrative. In this lively hemispheric exchange, melodrama stands as one of the strongest genetic bridges, prominent in the writings of Americans from Brockden Brown and Cooper through Poe to Hawthorne, Melville, and Stowe, all linked generically to Walpole, Walter Scott, Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte. Most of these authors have by now been taken as influences upon Crafts (Gates, Search). It lies beyond the scope of this essay to follow all these leads. But one of them, The Bondwoman's Narrative's inescapable debts to Bleak House (which I have already considered in a recent article, following in the footsteps of Hollis Robbins and others), I do want to pursue further, by teasing out some other implications of such a substantial debt (Ellis, "Whatever the law").
Even the opening of Crafts's novel owes something of a verbatim debt to the opening of Esther's narrative (which commences in Chapter Three of Bleak House). Hannah and Esther are, as a result, immediately bracketed together, as Crafts draws upon how Esther is deprived of her family place because of the Victorian era's social and legal prejudices. Crafts thereby establishes a transatlantic comparison of injustices revolving around the times' prevalent ambiguous relationship of morality, justice, and the law and their impact upon the family. One particular way Dickens's novel explores such injustice is by focusing upon an agent of the law's pursuit of a resident of London's slums, Jo, a young crossing sweeper. It is precisely in this arena that Crafts's debts to Bleak House are most concentrated. To take one key example, Jo's "ruinous place," the London slum he lives in called Tom All-Alone's, serves as the verbatim descriptive model for the plantation in the Carolinas where Hannah ends up (Ellis, "Whatever the law" 386-87).
This is a somewhat strange correspondence, since such an equation of chattel slavery with wage slavery was one usually urged by proslavery whites and so much mistrusted by anti-slavery advocates. Proslavers intended the analogy to imply that since there was so little difference between wage slavery and chattel slavery, between (urban) capitalist exploitation of their workforce and (rural) exploitation of the slave, to advocate slavery's abolition was to attack, anarchically, the very idea of laboring for any master, in any context. In this proslavery argument, urban whites were hypocrites for refusing to see how they cruelly exploited their laborers while attacking the far more benevolent, paternalistic institution of slavery. In this respect, it is surely significant that William and Ellen Craft, who certainly influenced Crafts, offer up for scorn an example of an outspoken Southern proslaver who espoused this argument:
My son knows what's best for the niggers; he has always told me that [in Southern slavery] they were much better off than the free niggers in the North. In fact, I don't believe there are any white labouring people in the world who are as well off as the slaves. (Craft and Craft 42)
Consequently abolitionists, particularly African Americans, generally opposed this equation of chattel slavery and wage slavery by emphasizing the former's more drastic bodily effects and invasions and their legal ramifications. It is thus instructive that Crafts offers this comparison of slave and slum resident, for in this she follows Dickens, who consistently links Jo's lot in Bleak House to that of slaves.
Crafts also mobilizes Dickens's appeal throughout Bleak House to the common compassion of "men and women," a sentiment that also finds its exact correlation in Uncle Tom "s Cabin. Dickens's appeal to "men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts" echoes Stowe's "Are the honorable, the just, the high-minded and compassionate, the majority anywhere in this world?" (Dickens, Bleak House 705; Stowe 305 et passim).
Crafts's narrative is deeply enmeshed in these melodramatic transatlantic interconnections, though her insistence on bodily exposure and invasion intensifies her melodramatic imports from Dickens. She thus makes the point that slavery ratchets up the intensity of capitalist exploitation and its attendant asymmetries of power, asymmetries also underlying the existence of urban slums. Additionally, in line with transatlantic gothic conventions, Crafts's focus falls upon transgression of individual freedom. This confrontation between individual freedom and restraint can be traced back to the romantic imagination of Coleridge and Wordsworth, so it is significant, rather than incidental, that Wordsworth's lines "But she is in her grave, and, oh,/The difference to me!" (12) are alluded to in Crafts's narrative. Hannah's cry, "But Oh the difference to me" (13) describes her emotions on losing all access to the elderly couple who teach her to read (they are imprisoned for aiding her and so become, as it were, dead to her), in a sophisticated metatextual reference to Wordsworth's poem that shows substantial knowledge of at least this one romantic poet. What is emerging is a picture of a writer with an impressively wide range of transatlantic literary resources available to her.
The key point is that attending to these literary debts of Crafts and showing her to be a well-read individual also undermine some of the arguments advanced in favor of her being African American (not because she has read these authors but because of how she reads them). For example, Gates, in his introduction, regards the depiction of the slave quarters to which Hannah is banished by Mrs. Wheeler as drawing upon Crafts's "personal experience of plantation life" (Gates, "Introduction" lxix and "Fugitive" 107). However, Crafts's depiction of the slave huts in the Wheelers' Carolinian plantation instead draws verbatim upon Dickens's description of the slum tenements in Tom All-Alone's, as Hollis Robbins has noted (see also Ballinger). Similarly, Gates suggests that the relationship Crafts depicts between white mistress and black personal servant drew on insights gleaned from experience ("Introduction" lxx). Yet the whole framing of this relationship--be it between Hannah and Mrs. Wheeler or Maria and Mrs. Wheeler--again draws heavily upon Bleak House. The portrait of the close intimacy between Lindendale's mistress and Hannah as her servant is not solely dependent on a female African American's knowledge of how white mistress and black female servant interact. Dickens carefully describes how Lady Dedlock takes herself to be inscrutable, when in fact her maid, like her other servants, "knows her weaknesses, prejudices, follies, haughtinesses and caprices; and lives upon as accurate a calculation ... of her moral nature as her dressmaker takes of her physical proportions" and "can tell you how to manage her as if she were a baby" (59); his description is an intimation of how the relationship between lady and lady's maid goes beyond the expectations of class distinctions. Furthermore, the way that, late in Crafts's text, Maria manages Mrs. Wheeler "like a baby" when engineering Hannah's eviction from the position of Mrs. Wheeler's maidservant and her own elevation is again borrowed from Dickens, for Lady Dedlock also exchanges one female personal servant for another, to the detriment of the displaced servant. Again, then, Gates is perhaps wrong to see the relationships between female black servant and white mistress in The Bondwoman's Narrative as a sign of the text's African-Americanness, and it is better to regard Dickens as something of a source-influence upon Crafts. Furthermore, the ending of the novel, wherein Hannah describes her happy condition in New Jersey in the free North, is in turn in complete harmony with the sentimental plangency of many Dickensian endings--the ending not only of Bleak House but also of David Copperfield (published in London in twenty monthly parts, 1849-1850, then in New York in 1852).
Perhaps by now unsurprisingly, Crafts takes up Dickens's words almost verbatim when ruminating upon the lot of slaves:
To be made to feel that you have no business here, there, or anywhere except just to work--work--work--.... It must be a strange state to feel that in the judgement of those above you are scarcely human, and to fear that their opinion is more than half right, that you really are assimilated to the brutes, that the horses, dogs and cattle have quite as many priveledges, and are probably your equals or it may be your superiors in knowledge, that even your shape is questionable as belonging to that order of superior beings whose delicacy you offend. (Crafts 201)
to feel I have no business here there or anywhere.... It must be a strange state, not merely to be told that I am scarcely human (as in the case of my offering myself for a witness) but to feel it of my own knowledge all my life! To see the horses, dogs and cattle go by, and to know that in ignorance I belong to them, and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend! (Bleak House 274)
In this act of copying, Crafts draws upon a transatlantic shuttle that is difficult to disentangle. For example, she incorporates a reference to the famous phrase in Isaac Watts's 1715 poem, "How Doth the Little Busy Bee"--"work, work, work"--that may stem from her own copious reading or from Dickens, who uses the phrase in both The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Little Dorrit (1855). (13) Plainly, however, Bleak House here draws on the slave narrative genre to describe Jo's illiterate, bestial condition. Arguably, Douglass's narrative is the most clearly implicated, comparing slaves to animals and reflecting on the impact of illiteracy on the slave (Douglass 549). (I must add that, of course, this trope is also common throughout the slave narrative.) Dickens's opposition to American slavery, "that most hideous blot and foul disgrace," is apparent in his American Notes. (14) The Bondwoman "s Narrative may therefore be drawing promiscuously upon both Douglass's slave narrative and Dickens, or just upon Dickens alone, and deciding whether Douglass and Watts are fed into Crafts's text directly or by way of Dickens at this point can only remain moot.
Yet Dickens's preoccupation with legal machinations is not uniquely an influence upon Crafts. William Craft's and Ellen Craft's short narrative (its heavy use of conversational exchange making it the most obvious slave narrative model for Crafts) devotes seven and a half pages (out of sixty-nine--i.e., over ten percent) to discussing the legal supports of the South's peculiar institution (5-6; 10-11; 12 n.; 13-14; 22-27; 45; 58). White abolitionist writing, such as Theodore Dwight Weld's American Slavery As It Is and Harriet Beecher Stowe's A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, also frequently provide extensive details of the invasiveness of laws pertaining to slavery and of how these laws are enacted in practice. In this respect, William and Ellen Craft interlock law and the body in their narrative in a way that Hannah Crafts's narrative later does as well:
every coloured person's complexion is prima facie evidence of his being a slave; and the lowest villain in the country, should he be a white man, has the legal power to arrest, and question, in the most inquisitorial and insulting manner, any coloured person, male or female, that he may find at large ... without a written pass....
If the coloured person refuses to answer questions put to him, he may be beaten, and his defending himself against this attack makes him an outlaw.... (Craft and Craft 24-25)
Law, justice, and the body--injustice under the law, the body's wasting and the instrumental link between the former and the latter--are elements prominent in the slave narrative. But it is also central to the transatlantic melodramatic imagination of international bestsellers: it is used, for example, by Dickens and Charlotte Bronte as much as by African American slave narrators and abolitionists.
Thus the question arises: how much does it matter whether The Bondwoman 's Narrative is written by an African American or a white? In order to approach this question, I need to return to Crafts's depiction of the Wheelers' slave quarters. Just as Bleak House's Tom All-Alone's shaped The Bondwoman's Narrative's depiction of the slave quarters to which Hannah is banished so does Crafts's description of their inhabitants closely chime with the depiction in Bleak House of the inhabitants of the brickmakers' cottages near St Albans:
the brickmaker's house ... was one of a cluster of wretched little hovels; ... with ... miserable little gardens before the doors, growing nothing but stagnant pools....the droppings of rain-water ... were banked up with mud into a little pond.... At the doors and windows some men and women lounged around, or prowled about and took little notice of us, except to laugh to one another, or to say something, as we passed, about gentlefolks minding their own business.
Mrs Padiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination, and talking volubly about the untidy habits of the people (I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place) conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner ... there were in this damp offensive room--a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire, a man, all stained with clay and mud, and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl, doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up as we came in ... nobody gave us any welcome. (Bleak House 156)
Bill's cabin was in a range of huts, tenanted by the workers in the fields. In front was a large pool of black mud and corrupt water.... I went in, but such sights and smells as met me I cannot describe them. It was reeking with filth and impurity of every kind, and already occupied by near a dozen women and children, who were sitting on the ground.... They regarded me curiously as I entered, grinned with malicious satisfaction that I had been brought down to their level, and made some remarks at my expense; while the children kicked and yelled, and clawed each other, scratching each other's faces, and pulling each other's hair I stumbled to a bench I supposed designed for a seat, when one of the woman [sic] arose, seized me by the hair, and without ceremony dragged me to the ground, gave me a furious kick and made use of highly improper and indecent language. Bill, who had retired to the outside of the hut, hearing the noise of the fray came hastily in. It was his turn then. He commenced beating her with a hearty good-will, and she scratched and bit him furiously. (Crafts 208-09)
But here I want to focus not only upon the correlations apparent in these two passages but also upon the deliberate differences in Crafts's imitation (given that most other borrowings from Bleak House are near verbatim, whereas this instance contains only verbal echoes). It is startling to consider how hard it is to deduce the ethnic identity of the writer lying behind the narrator of The Bondwoman's Narrative: the differences could indicate the writer to be black or white.
Let us define some key differences first. In particular, Crafts's narrator's lack of sympathy for the down-trodden stands out, when compared to Dickens's Esther. It can reasonably be argued that Crafts's Hannah, in her attitude toward the brickmakers' living conditions, echoes not Dickens's fierce critique of both their squalor and of the dogooding Mrs. Pardiggle, but, ironically, of the kind of censorious charity Mrs. Pardiggle metes out. Similarly significant is Esther's recognition of how the environment militates against "tidiness"--not a sentiment at all shared by Hannah--and Hannah's silence is not mitigated by any note of irony.
What are we to make of these differences? It could be argued that Crafts's Hannah here, as a light-skinned African American, is ironically voicing some of her ethnic group's prejudices about darker-skinned African Americans, which Crafts does not intend us to share. But what, then, do we make of the singular lack of any indicators that we need to read Hannah's words ironically? We know that such prejudices about depth of skin color were promoted by white supremacist arguments concerning the ennobling effect of white blood. It must be added that one of Crafts's many sources, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is laced with these--a fact contributing much to the controversy surrounding Stowe's novel (Yellin). This color hierarchicalization was to prove an enduring issue: we need only think of Charles Chesnutt's 1898 story, "The Wife of His Youth," and its unsympathetic representation of the widespread snobbery in "Blue Vein" societies concerning skin color and its depiction of the way that darker-skinned African Americans were excluded from joining the Blue Veins. Likewise, what should we make of the inarticulateness of Crafts's field slaves (definitively not a product of any species of snobbery on Hannah's part), when set beside the speech of one of Dickens's brickmakers about the filthy water and appalling conditions:
Now you're a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom.... I'll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she is a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That's wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin, instead? An't my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty--it's nat'rally dirty, and it's nat'rally onwholesome; and we've had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides.... How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I've been drunk for three days, and I'd a been drunk for four if I'd a had the money.... And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it to her; and if she says I didn't, she's a Lie! (Bleak House 158)
Set beside such passion, Crafts's depictions of her violent, dark-skinned African Americans, characterised by their failure to speak (other than in "highly improper and indecent language") and the sexual threat one of them poses, create an image of inarticulate, sexually-driven brutism that only the most charitable of readings can regard as solely caused by environmental deprivation, as Hannah retreats from the cabin in distress: "Frightened, and anxious to escape such a scene I ... left the hut" (209). (15) Placing Crafts's field-slaves' unquoted use of "indecent language" alongside the articulateness of Dickens's brickmaker, who, like Esther, but with heavy irony, recognizes the contribution that environmental deprivation makes to his misery, can cut one of two main ways. First, it could stand, if only weakly, given the absence of either irony or outrage, as Crafts's confirmation of Douglass's verdict that field slavery is so deracinating that it robs slaves of their humanity, reducing them to brutes afflicted by a numb-brained weariness of body and soul, whilst their children scavenge alongside pigs (Douglass 543, 549). Or, second, it could be read less sympathetically, as an aloof distancing of Hannah from the (innately) brutish ways of darker-skinned African Americans. Both of these possibilities could be taken as signs of Crafts's (light-skinned) African American identity. However, both could equally (or better) be taken as signs of the opposite: of, first, a white abolitionist's recognition of the absence of humanizing influences in a slave's life, derived, perhaps, again, from Douglass (571); or, second, of a confirmation, again by a white abolitionist, of how Anglo-Saxon blood will, as it were, always show through (a recurrent racist cultural scenario at this time). An additional question raised by all this is whether the implied foregrounding of what would become "blue vein" arguments in Crafts's book suggests it could be of a later date than usually assumed: Southern arguments in favour of "one drop" legislation, for example, came fully to the fore only after the Civil War and slavery's abolition. (16)
By now, it should be noted, the majority of the major incidents in Crafts's manuscript can reasonably be traced not to her own invention but to other literary sources. This is true even of the depiction of the master of Lindendale's gibbeting of the old and faithful female slave and her pet dog until both finally expire from exposure, dehydration and lack of food. An obvious possible progenitor for this episode is the description of the caged slave in Hector St John de Crevecoeur's Letters of an American Farmer--though Crevcoeur's slave had actually killed a man (Crevecoeur 172ff.; see also Yellin 107). Crevecoeur is certainly a source for Crafts:
"The very negroes themselves seemed to partake of such a decency of behaviour, and modesty of countenance, as I had never before observed. By what means," said I, "Mr. Bertram, do you rule your slaves so well, that they seem to work with all the cheerfulness of white men?" (Crevecoeur 192)
The overseer was gentle and kind, and the slaves were industrious and obedient, not through fear of punishment, but because they loved and respected a master and mistress so amiable and good. (Crafts 123)
Disturbingly, Crafts's text does not make available the reason which Crevecoeur's Mr. Bertram advances in answer to his interlocutor:
Though our erroneous prejudices and opinions once induced us to look upon them as only fit for slavery ... yet of late, in consequence of the remonstrances of several Friends ... our society treats them very differently. With us now they are free.... Other societies of Christians keep them still as slaves ... what motive beside fear can they have to behave well? ... Our society treats them now as the companions of our labours ... they love God and fear his judgments. (192-93)
Again, I feel, Crafts's narrator is not convincingly categorizable as African American in this comparison.
In this respect, there are a number of traits in The Bondwoman's Narrative that could be held to be consistent with a white authorship, and at times these make the text closely comparable to Richard Hildreth's The Slave (1836; reprinted as The White Slave, 1852) and Mattie Griffiths's Autobiography of a Female Slave (1857). For example, whilst many slave narratives contrast slaves' treatment on different plantations, none approaches the idyllic conditions ruling the Henrys' plangently-named "Forget me not": "The overseer was gentle and kind, and the slaves industrious, not through fear of punishment, but because they loved and respected a master and mistress so amiable and good" (Crafts 123). (17) This is more reminiscent of Ann's sentiments in Griffith's 1857 Autobiography, when recalling her first home, the Nelson's, as "a kind dream" (9).
Relatedly, The Bondwoman's Narrative's praise of Northern whites is unstinting, beginning as early as page eight, when the poor white woman, Hetty, who teaches Hannah to read and write, asserts that since she "was a northern woman" she "consequently ha[s] no prejudices against your birth." Hannah comments, "I had heard of the North where the people were all free, and where the colored race had so many and such true friends" (8), and this verdict is allowed to stand unchallenged. It needs to be noted that, in African American writing, the sharpest criticism of Northern racism and hypocrisy (for reasons to do with cultural hegemony and editorial censorship) occurs when the work is most free from the hands of white editors. William Grimes's Life of William Grimes (1825) and Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) provide key examples of the fierce attacks upon Northern whites that could then result. Yet The Bondwoman "s Narrative, though a manuscript apparently free of any editorial intervention, fails to follow suit. Indeed, Hetty and Siah are Hannah's "true friends" in exactly the way that Ann's true friends in Mattie Griffiths's novel are almost always the white abolitionists that support her. "Educated at the north," Hetty and Siah, in Crafts's novel, "felt keenly on the subject of slavery and the degradation and ignorance it imposes" (10) just as, with monotonous repetitiveness, Griffith's Ann praises Northern "Noble Defenders of Abolition" (399 and passim). Yet the reader is also told that Hetty and Siah "for more than fifty years had occupied the same home" (Crafts 9). This must mean that the couple moved South at a time when slavery still existed widely in the North and well before Abolition gained more than a very limited hold. How, then, the couple's "education" taught them their anti-slavery sentiments is unclear. An odd idealisation of "the North" occurs, matching that of Mattie Griffiths (see, for example, Griffiths 399).
Just as disconcerting is the way the text embraces the doctrine that poverty brings its own rewards to a good Christian and demonstrates how "the hand of Providence ... give[s] to the righteous the reward of their works, and to the wicked the fruits of their doings" (Crafts 3). Hannah learns this, again, from Hetty and Siah: "They led me to the foot of the Cross" (10). Hannah even slips off to be with this aged white couple rather than stay with her fellow African Americans on Sundays. She leaves her fellow slaves who are "enjoying the banjo and the dance" (10), as she condescendingly points out--disturbingly, too, given the evidence that Crafts may have read Douglass's Narrative, which explains in detail why it is that slaves throw themselves so excessively into holiday celebration (chapter 10). All this reaches a nadir as early as page eleven of The Bondwoman's Narrative: "I am a slave ... I can never be great, nor rich ...; but I can do my duty, and be kind in the sure and certain hope of an eternal reward." As a result of her devoutness, Hannah discovers "how ready [the slaves] were to serve and obey me" (11). Crafts's portrait of "Forget me not" goes even further than Griffiths's portrait of both Ann's first and her final Southern home in the process, especially in her self-sacrifice. After the accidental death of her owner, Trappe, Hannah wakes up in the Henrys' home to find that she is so white in appearance she has not been recognized as a slave: "Should I perpetuate the delusion, or acknowledge frankly my humble condition. I was sorely tempted, but only for a moment. My better nature prevailed" (116). Devoutly, she passes up her chance to escape.
It could even be argued that Griffiths is more robust about darkskinned African American's incapabilities than Crafts. Whereas Griffiths depicts Ann as encountering "full-blooded Africans, finely educated, in possession of princely talents ... illustrating ... the oft-disputed fact that the African intellect is equal to the Caucasian" (Griffiths 398, 267), Crafts establishes a disturbingly patronizing note concerning the "ignoble" colored person: "Of course the [Wheeler] family residence was stocked with slaves of a higher and nobler order than those belonging to the fields"(Crafts 202). Such sentiments run right through The Bondwoman "s Narrative, even to its end, when, having escaped, Hannah observes how she "keep[s] a school for colored children" (237). Though this destiny for Hannah apparently matches that of Griffths's Ann, "engaged in teaching a small school of African children," and "happy in the discharge of a sacred duty" (Griffiths 399), Hannah by contrast merely "keeps" her school. And Crafts's formulation, "for colored children," oddly matches those points where, in talking of "oppressed Africans" and "colored girls," Griffiths sounds most condescendingly white.
My students, however, feel that, despite these many counter-indications, The Bondwoman's Narrative was written by an African American; they were led in these discussions by an African-Caribbean female. The issue of authenticity and the reliability of the witness was their argument's tipping point. They wanted to believe the book was written from a black perspective and believed that determining this perspective was important. However, it might be better to observe that, in an important way, by worrying over this issue, readers bind themselves to essentialist identity questions first formulated extensively in America by pro-slavery advocates, following in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson as he advanced arguments focussing upon the inferiority of the African American race, (18) when, in fact, humanity is, in strict, scientific evolution-based terms, of one human race. Rather, I would argue, Crafts is prepared freely to weave herself (accepting the handwriting as a female's) between genres and literary modes, blurring in the process any attempts to achieve separation on the basis of ethnic identity. This is not a new idea, of course: as Karen Sanchez-Eppler has observed: "it was Gates himself who most powerfully argued in the 1980s that race is a construction best evoked in quotation marks" (274). (19)
Perhaps then we should turn back to that awful moment early in The Bondwoman's Narrative when a slave woman is suspended from the creaking linden tree, deprived of water for her transgression. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner stands as an ur-figure for this strand of romantic melodrama, condemned by an act of injustice to suffer from exposure, thirst, and isolation. But in Crafts's hands, in an inversion of the ancient mariner's tale, the slave woman is guiltless of any sin (she simply refuses to kill her own pet dog) and is herself treated cruelly and with monumental injustice, but somehow still within Southern law and its precedents (she chooses to continue to disobey and so is publicly gibbeted). Crafts, it can be argued, draws on uncertainties about the efficacy of justice related to Coleridge's debates over this selfsame issue (see Ellis, "Whatever the law").
In this sort of way, The Bondwoman's Narrative constitutes a powerful text; we should be grateful to Gates for his recovery work. Exactly what he has recovered is less clear. Possibly it is the antebellum work of a (bond)servant, either one living in the North or recently escaped to it, as the contributors to In Search of Hannah Crafts suggest. Or it is the postbellum work of an Irish servant, as at points Bernier and Newman seem to propose. Or, as the balance of my arguments suggest, it is the work of a well-read and educated white female (though yet a poor speller), probably fallen on much harder times than those to which she was accustomed, and perhaps (let me now add) recently moved to the North from Washington. Possibly the widow of a politician or public official, this white female writes both from pecuniary motives and a deep-seated opposition to the institution of slavery, but comes to understand that her authorial passing as an escaped slave is politically unacceptable and perhaps even learns that her verbatim borrowings go slightly too far (by becoming too plagiaristic). And so her manuscript, composed during or shortly after the Civil War, is set to one side. My final point is that perhaps any such pursuit of Crafts's identity should give way more often now, at this stage in her novel's reception, to an analysis of the text and its themes: in particular the way that the law, justice, human rights, prejudice and disadvantage lie at the centre of Crafts's text.
Andrews, William. "Hannah Crafts's Sense of an Ending." Gates, Search 30-42.
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Ballinger, Gill, Tim Lustig, and Dale Townsend. "Missing Intertexts: Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative and African American Literary History." Journal of American Studies 39.2 (2005): 207-37.
Bernier, Celeste-Marie, and Judie Newman. "The Bondwoman's Narrative: Text, Paratext and Hypertext." Journal of American Studies 39.2 (2005): 147-65.
Bloom, John. "Literary Blackface?: The Mystery of Hannah Crafts." Gates, Search 431-38.
Buell, Lawrence. "Bondwoman Unbound: Hannah Crafts's Art and Nineteenth-Century American Literary Practices." Gates, Search 1629.
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Craft, William, and Ellen Craft. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. 1860. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999.
Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman "s Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Warner Books, 2002.
de Crevecoeur, Hector St John. Letters of an American Farmer. 1782. London: J. M. Dent, 1971.
Cruz, Barbara C., and Michael J. Berson. "The American Melting Pot: Miscegenation in the United States." OAH Magazine of History 15.4 (2001). May 24, 2005. http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/family/ cruz-berson.html
Dickens, Charles. American Notes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1842.
--. Bleak House.1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985.
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--. Great Expectations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1861.
--. Little Dorrit. London: Bradbury and Evans, 1857.
--. The Old Curiosity Shop. 1841. London: Penguin, 2001.
Douglass, Fredrick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself. 1845. I Was Born a Slave. Ed. Yuval Taylor. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999. 529-99.
Ellis, R. J. "Hannah Crafts." The Literary Encyclopedia. The Literary Dictionary Company. 2004. September 12, 2006. http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5864
--. "'Whatever the law permits': Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative." Transatlantic Exchanges: The American South in Europe--Europe in the American South. Ed. Winfried Fluck, Stefan Brandt and Ingrid Thaler. Wien: Verlag de Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2007. 377-98.
Ernest, John. Resistance and Reformation in African American Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.
Flynn, Katherine E. "Jane Johnson, Found! But Is She 'Hannah Crafts'?: The Search for the Author of The Bondwoman's Narrative." Gates, Search 371-405.
Garrison, William Lloyd. Letter to Samuel Joseph Maye [May]. April 7, 1848. Boston Public Library, Ms. A.11 Vol. 4 No. 75.
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--. "The Fugitive." New Yorker. February 18, 2002. 104-15.
--. "Introduction." Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman "s Narrative. New York: Warner Books, 2002. ix-lxxv.
--. "Race," Writing and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
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Grant, Susan-Mary. Email communication to R. J. Ellis. October 3, 2006.
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--. Uncle Tom's Story of His Life. An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson (Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom). From 1789 to 1876. 1876. Boston: Christian Age Office, 1877.
Hildreth, Richard. The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore. Boston: J. H. Eastburn, 1836.
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R. J. ELLIS
University of Birmingham UK
(1) The Boadwoman's Narrative includes a long introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the book's editor (Gates, "Introduction") and copious notes and appendices. For a collection of essays on Crafts, see Gates, Search.
(2) This argument was somewhat foreshadowed--upon different grounds--by Bloom.
(3) As I look up from my desk, in my office, I can see a packet of ten-year-old paper almost in front of me that I save for particular printing jobs.
(4) Gates claims that the absence of any mention of the Civil War indicates an antebellum composition date for Crafts's manuscript. See Gates, "Introduction." I here argue against this conclusion.
(5) Editions of Henson's book were numerous, both before and after the Civil War: in 1849, 1852, 1876. This last edition was reprinted in 1877 (the "Fortieth Thousand" edition). See also Stowe and Still. Still's The Underground Railroad was reprinted in 1872, 1879, 1883 (etc.).
(6) For a discussion of Sir Walter Scott's (minor) influence on Crafts, see Robbins 74, 84 (n.5).
(7) See also Skocpol 105-11 and passim.
(8) Bernier's and Newman's implicit argument seems to be that Crafts may have been an Irish servant-woman. They certainly clearly regard her as having been a servant, not a slave (155, 159-60, 164).
(9) Hildreth's book was frequently reprinted in the next twenty-five years. A limited case here is, of course, Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845).
(10) See also Andrews 34. Much reference to Gates's open contention on the cover of his edition of Crafts's work that it is a novel is found in Gates (Search). See also Bernier and Newman 150.
(11) See, for example the section in Gates (Search 195-312) entitled "African American Gothic", which includes essays by Russ Castronovo, Priscilla Wald, Christopher Castiglia, Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Robert S. Levine and Zoe Trodd. See also Ballinger et. el., 207-37; Ellis, "Whatever the law," 377-98.
(12) See William Wordsworth, "Poems Founded on the Affection--VIII ["She dwelt among the untrodden ways"], 1799 , rpt. in Wordsworth 86.
(13) See Isaac Watts, "Against Idleness and Mischief', in Watts 29; Dickens, Old Curiosity Shop 1841; Dickens, lathe Dorrit 1857. There are echoes of the character, Pancks, in more than one place in Crafts's novel.
(14) See, in particular, Chapter III. The South was clear about Dickens' sympathies: "he has permitted himself to be made a tool of by the Abolitionists, has endorsed their stale slanders ... has inserted in his work passages from Southern Papers, which were actually the coinage of lying Abolitionists; and has basely pandered to the prejudices of his countrymen, by asserting as facts, things obviously false; for which he had no shadow of proof" ("Laon" 62).
(15) Bernier and Newman (161) suggest that such images of brutalization indicate a later compositional date, perhaps neglecting Douglass's writing on the subject.
(16) Such hypodescent arguments in part sprang from Arthur, comte de Gobineau, Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines (1853-55). See Saks 43; Van Evrie 161, 167. Lemire notes how it was commonly feared that amalgamation threatened civilization, as in Josiah Nott's 1843 "The Mulatto a Hybrid--Probable Extermination of the Two Races if Whites and Blacks Are Allowed to Intermarry" (252). Hypodescent arguments were starting to be formulated as the "one-drop" theory or rule by 1860. See also Cruz and Berson.
(17) It is true that Hannah's paean is not quite uninterrupted. When Mrs. Henry explains that she cannot buy Hannah because her father "exacted from me a solemn promise never on any occasion to sell or buy a servant" and asserts "That oath I never can violate," Hannah notes how "my heart rose against the man, who in a slave-holding country could exact such a promise" (127). But Mrs. Henry's father has a sinful past that accounts for his misguided stipulation and Hannah remains loyal: "I could not lightly sacrifice the good opinion of Mrs. Henry and her family" (142).
(18) Nature, Jefferson argued in Notes from Virginia, "has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head" (242).
(19) See also Gates, "Race," Writing and Difference, and Figures.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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