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In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman's Narrative.

In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman's Narrative Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins Basic Civitas Books, January 2004 $27.50, ISBN 0-465-02714-8

In 2002, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. published a 19th-century manuscript that caused a national sensation. Purportedly the first novel by a female slave, and quite possibly the first novel by an African American woman, The Bondwoman's Narrative has captured the attention of both scholars and the reading public at large. Told through the eyes of a self-educated, white-appearing woman who is a "bondwoman" under the South's peculiar institution, the text raised a number of questions regarding its origins and its influences and aims, as well as how it changes, supports, or simply adds to our understanding of life under slavery. Gates and Hollis Robbins (of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute) then compiled some of the most provocative responses to Crafts's handiwork and Gates's discovery of it.

In Search of Hannah Crafts is designed primarily for an academic audience. Yet, while essays such as Zoe Trodd's "Don't speak dearest, it will make you worse," take for granted prior knowledge of other academic texts, many require little more than a general interest in the subject.

Anyone who has read The Bondwoman's Narrative is no doubt familiar with the lengthy and fascinating process by which Gates acquired and attempted to authenticate Crafts's novel. Among the book's most interesting essays are those that seek to solve the mystery of the author's identity. In "The Case for Hannah Vincent," Nina Baym argues for a free black author, while, in the same chapter, Katherine Flynn, a certified genealogical records specialist, traces the life of fugitive slave Jane Johnson, and presents formidable evidence that she was the author. Also noteworthy is Joe Nickell's account of how he dated the manuscript by analyzing the paper, ink, and writing style--and his thoughts on who the author might have been.

But, of course, the heart of the book lies in the critical attention paid to Crafts's writing and its relation to the society in which she lived. Here, the authors tend to operate by the assumption that Crafts is indeed, a black fugitive slave, and they treat her story as a novel or a fictionalized autobiography. Close attention is paid to Crafts's extensive borrowing or departing from popular novels of the day-such as Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Catherine Keyser demonstrates how Crafts's critical reading of other texts allows her to employ sophisticated literary devices.

The essays on Crafts's worldview, her seeming disinterest in the abolitionist movement (or after her escape, in assisting other fugitive slaves), and her religious beliefs are thoughtful and thought provoking. Robert Levine provides evidence of Crafts's conflicted views toward issues of race and class, slavery and freedom. He explains that while her heroine is content to remain a slave (provided the slave master is to her liking), and she never expresses any fear of being raped by a white man, it is her revulsion to the impending marriage--albeit a forced one--to a black slave, that pushes her to finally run away.

Gates and Robbins manage to present a full range of possibilities and perspectives--even including, among the four published reviews at the book's end, a conservative critic's dismissal of the entire project. Ultimately, readers will choose, according to their particular interests. As is to be expected, the writers, and accordingly their writing styles, are diverse. Though some essays are certainly stronger, or more penetrating than others are, each brings something new to the table, and enhances the dialogue in some way. For now, however, the true story of Hannah Crafts and The Bondwoman's Narrative will remain a mystery.

--Reviewed by Denise Simon Denise Simon is a writer and researcher in Brooklyn, New York. She currently works for the Hearst Corporation and is a mentor in a writing group for teenage girls.
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Author:Simon, Denise
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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