Harriet E. Wilson. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.
One of my mentors always cautioned against giving away a punch! ending in the first paragraph, but scholars of African American studies have waited too long to hear this news: after publishing Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), Harriet Wilson became active in the Spiritualist movement as a lecturer and medium, married briefly, and seems to have lived a rich and full life before she passed away on June 28, 1900. She is buried in Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Those of us who have been looking for Wilson for two decades--and our number has grown considerably, given Our Nig's place near the center of the emerging canon of early African American literature--have P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts to thank for this discovery and for a wealth of new information on Wilson shared in their 2005 Penguin Classics edition of Our Nig. While there are some minor flaws in the edition, Foreman and Pitts's groundbreaking work is, simply, a gift that many of us thought we would never receive--and one we should treasure.
The finds made by Foreman and Pitts are so valuable in part because consideration of Our Nig has been intertwined with the mystery surrounding its author since Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rediscovered the book and engineered its reissue in 1983. In inspired archival work, Gates was able to determine that Harriet E. Adams Wilson, a free Black woman from Milford, New Hampshire, wrote Our Nig and arranged to have it printed in 1859. Gates also established basic details about Wilson's young son George, whom she hoped to support with the book's proceeds before he died in early 1860. Neither Gates nor scholars after him were able, however, to find out much more about Wilson's life, especially after 1860. For his part, Gates was also the first to speculate in print that the book teetered along a line between autobiography and novel--though he emphasized its novelistic elements. Moreover, Gates first documented the tremendous silence that enshrouded the book and the near total neglect of Wilson herself that followed for most of the ensuing century.
In explaining the cultural amnesia that displaced Our Nig, Gates skillfully articulated the ways that, as the Bildungsroman of a young, nominally-free black girl named Frado, the book both participated in and "talked back" to the often overlapping genres of the antebellum fugitive slave narrative and the 19th-century sentimental novel by (white) women. Subsequently, literary and cultural studies critics have examined Frado's mixed race parentage, her abandonment by her white mother after her black father's death, her own eventual and brief marriage to an African American lecturer who ironically pretended to be a fugitive slave, and, especially, her youth as a virtual slave in a "Two-Story White House, North" (as the novel's subtitle declares). Ruling that "White House" was an ostensibly Christian mother (Mrs. Bellmont), whom Wilson also figured as a "right she-Devil" who quite certainly challenged--indeed, threatened--19th-century readers' expectations of virtuous white womanhood. While these rhetorical features defeated any genuine hope that Wilson harbored for her book's success in antebellum America, they have ensured modern interest.
Even had Gates not suggested an autobiographical thread, readers who recognized Our Nig's complex, ill-fitting place in antebellum literature would have been eager to know more about the author. But Barbara White whetted appetites even more with her scholarly investigation into the family "Bellmont," initially published in American Literature 65 (1993) and later included in Gates's 2002 reissue of Our Nig. In addition to tracing Wilson more definitively than Gates had, White proved that the Bellmont family who "took in" young Frado was based on the family of Nehemiah Hayward, Jr. and his wife Rebecca Hutchinson Hayward, a close relative of the abolitionist Hutchinson Family singers.
Foreman and Pitts richly thicken our understanding of Wilson's life before Our Nig and so of the book's autobiographical acts. They have, for the first time, marked Wilson's birthdate--March 15, 1825. They have linked Frado's fictive father Jim to free African American Joshua Green, Wilson's father, and Frado's fictive mother Mag Smith to a real Mag Smith, who may well have been Wilson's mother. Foreman and Pitts even located a newspaper account of Smith's death "after a violent and intoxicated quarrel with her black lover" in 1830, less than a year after the death of Joshua Green. They discovered real-life corollaries to most of the rest of the book's characters, and make strong, persuasive guesses at the identities of the authors of the three authenticating letters in Our Nig's appendix. Their research also turned up a handful of new details on Wilson's first husband--who, again, looks like Frado's fictional (and fraudulent) spouse. They were able to find a poem published in an area newspaper, the Farmer's Cabinet, entitled "Fading Away," written by a "Hattie" who was almost certainly Wilson. They even found extant bottles for "Mrs. H. E. Wilson's Hair Dressing" that may well have contained the "recipe for restoring gray hair to its former color" that Frado receives near the end of Our Nig. These discoveries in and of themselves would merit extensive scholarly discussion.
But Foreman and Pitts also managed to pick. up one of the coldest trails in 19th-century African American studies. They found a "Hattie Wilson" listed as a medium in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper the Banner of Light in 1867, and then carefully documented her involvement in spiritualism as an "eloquent and earnest colored trance medium." They discovered that she shared the podium with some of the most prominent spiritualists of the day over the next three decades. They were able to mark her brief (second) marriage to John Gallatin Robinson, a white Spiritualist, in Boston on September 29, 1870 and to trace Robinson after the couple split. Through such research, they were able to find not only census and city directory listings, but to track down Wilson's death record. This abundance of documents offers not only previously unknown information on Wilson's later life, but extraordinarily also her birthdate, birthplace, and parents' names-and thus a solid basis to confirm that "Hattie Wilson" was indeed the Harriet E. Adams Wilson who authored Our Nig. In short, Foreman and Pitts give readers a sense of a life we've had only brief glimpses at and at the same time, unprecedented opportunities on which to base scholarly speculations and analyses.
Foreman and Pitts apply their findings to an informed and nuanced re-reading of the novel. Their general introduction gives the best synthesis of scholarship to date on Our Nig and, furthermore, raises and contextualizes several thematic questions that emanate from their archival treasure. The next generation of scholars of Our Nig will have to grapple with their recognition that Wilson's troubled and complex consideration of Christianity--already discussed by several critics--did not mark not a step away from religion (as it did in Wilson's contemporary Frederick Douglass), but a move into the often conflicted collection of religious faiths and social activism that made up Spiritualism. Similarly, Foreman and Pitts make a case for adding the captivity narrative to the list of genres that Our Nig addresses--a list that has grown to include not only slave narratives and sentimental fiction, but also Christian conversion narratives and early depictions of rural New England farm life. Perhaps most importantly from a critical standpoint, Foreman and Pitts foreground the fact that their research leaves little doubt that Our Nig is an autobiography--but they also thoughtfully recognize that this discovery does nothing to lessen the need to study the book's novelistic style and conventions as well as its deft dialogue with antebellum popular fiction. Foreman and Pitts, arguably more than any previous critic(s), recognize that Our Nig sits at a rich nexus of several genres, and they thus allow us to see how much Wilson struggled to tell a story that could accommodate the complexities of her experience. In the end, though, it seems that her world, bluntly, had no room for her particular rhetorical style nor for the details of her unorthodox life.
In short, the landmark research and skillful criticism done by Foreman and Pitts should shape discussion of Our Nig for years to come.
Nonetheless, this new edition has some weaknesses that scholars may find limiting. The book's extratextual apparatus is comprised of separate chronologies of Wilson's life and the Hayward/Hutchinson family (each complemented by a useful set of footnotes), a general historicizing introduction (with separate notes and a thorough bibliography), and fairly extensive notes on the novel proper that follow the text. In some ways, including these separate pieces makes sense--especially in terms of teachers assigning certain sections of the edition and in terms of readers having a quick reference while reading. (For example, readers may prefer to look at the chronology rather than back to the introduction.) All are chock-full of valuable information. But while there is some significant overlap between these various extratextual sections, some pieces of information appear only in one of the sections--and so, more than once, I found myself combing through the entire apparatus in search of a single fact or detail.
Academics in particular will find themselves wishing for a documents section. Access to The Banner of Light remains quite limited--and those who try to track down the issues listed in the various footnotes will find the process both difficult and time-consuming. (Were this fact not true, indeed, some of the very knowledge that this edition provides might have been uncovered much sooner.) A few key articles from the paper--especially those that offer accounts of Wilson's work--could have been reproduced here both easily and cheaply. Photographic reproductions or annotated, full-text versions of Wilson's death certificate (which is cited often), the Farmer's Cabinet poem, the Cabinet account of Mag Smith's death, even a picture of one of the extant bottles of hair tonic would have given both students and scholars additional resources for future work, and given teachers more tools for engaging students. A full collection of resources tied to Wilson is long overdue; one hopes that Foreman and Pitts's work, paired with that of the Harriet Wilson Project (http://www.harrietwilson project.org), will lead to such.
Finally, one of the least obvious virtues of both of the 1983 and 2002 Gates editions of Our Nig was their facsimile reproduction of all of the pages from the original 19th-century edition. While the text of the Foreman and Pitts edition is accurate and complete, I missed the look and feel of the original.
Still, the slight weaknesses in the construction of the volume pale when placed next to the amazing achievement of finding Harriet Wilson and the rich critical suggestions of just what this find means. In giving us both a much fuller sense of Wilson's life before Our Nig and our first glimpses at the four decades that followed its publication, the Foreman and Pitts edition is indisputably the single most important contribution to our understanding of Wilson since Gates's modern re-discovery of her text. It will start us on a new chapter of a story whose ending we cannot even guess at ... yet.
Saginaw Valley State University
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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