Review of Harriet Wilson’s New England – page 1

The Two-Story White House, North

Harriet Wilson’s New England: Race, Writing, and Region

Edited by JerriAnne Boggis, Eve Allegra Raimon, and Barbara A. White

Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2007, 244 pp., $26.00, paperback

Reviewed by Jean M. Humez

I sat up most of the night reading and pondering the enormous significance of Harriet Wilson’s novel Our Nig. It is as if we’d just discovered Phillis Wheatley—or Langston Hughes. . . .She represents a similar vastness of heretofore unexamined experience, a whole new layer of time and existence in American life and literature.”

—Alice Walker

Our Nig turned my understanding of New England on its head.

—Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Harriet Wilson’s 1859 autobiographical narrative Our Nig, about a young, mixed-race girl growing up in virtual slavery in antebellum New Hampshire is a poignant, multifaceted story that had almost no audience in its own time, for reasons that scholars continue to discuss and debate. It entered the canon of nineteenth-century African American literature only in 1983, dramatically, through the sponsorship of Henry Louis Gates. (Gates has continued to play a major role in reproducing and making widely available basic texts in African American cultural history as editor of the Oxford African American Studies Center—www.oxfordaasc.com/public.)

In one of the essays in Harriet Wilson’s New England, “Recovered Autobiographies and the Marketplace,” P. Gabrielle Foreman (co-editor with Reginald Pitts of a 2005 reissue of Our Nig that incorporates many new historical findings about Wilson and her milieu) evokes the cultural context in which Gates’s original re-publication of the Wilson narrative took place:

In the heady days of the early 1980s when novelists Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor strode side by side onto the New York Times bestseller lists and were also being recognized by Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, an Ivy League scholar’s discovery of the first black maternal novel-writing ancestor ensured the reception that Our Nig, and Harriet Wilson, needed to be noticed. When it first debuted, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s find was featured in People Magazine; stories about its rediscovery appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. . . . Gates situated Our Nig in relation to other literary genres to claim its status as a first, the first black novel to be published in the United States, the first novel to be published by a black woman in any language. . . . [I]n large part as a result of Gates’s effort and expertise, Our Nig became a contemporary African American classic in literature, though not in the aligned field of history.

In the 25 years since Alice Walker and others registered their sense of awe at the literary rediscovery, cultural and social historians and literary critics have found out more about this formerly obscure author and her book, and generated multiple textual interpretations. A central question, which Gates raised in his original introduction to the 1983 edition, and which is discussed in this anthology as well, relates to the generic ambiguity of the book: Is it to be understood as fiction, nonfiction, or both? Is it a unique cry from the heart, or can it be located within other literary traditions? Is its picture of the central character’s experience of northern New England racism authoritative?

The title page of the 1859 edition contained a long and provocative subtitle: Sketches from the Life of A Free Black, In a Two-Story White House, North, Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. By “Our Nig.” The last part apparently identifies the author with Frado, her central character, adopting with heavy irony the insulting word casually used by the protagonist’s employers as her own authorial name. Reference letters supporting the book, which appeared in an appendix, refer to the text as “autobiography.” Nevertheless, when Gates wrote his introduction to it in 1983—an era when fiction clearly trumped autobiography in the status hierarchy of academic literary studies—he firmly referred to it as a “novel.” He stands by that choice today.

Drawing upon Nina Baym’s important and influential Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America (1978), Gates argued that the book should be read in relation to the conventions of sentimental fiction, as written primarily by white American women of the day:

The author of Our Nig created a novel that partakes of the received structure of American women’s fiction, but often inverts that same structure, ironically enough at its most crucial points. . . .Mrs. Wilson, in other words, revised significantly the “white woman’s novel,” and thereby made the form her own. . . In this important way, therefore, Harriet Wilson’s novel inaugurates the Afro-American literary tradition in a manner more fundamentally formal than did either William Wells Brown or Frank J. Webb, the two black Americans who published complete novels before her.

Shortly after Gates made his claim, Hazel V. Carby, writing in Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987), complicated the discussion by pointing out that the novelistic conventions Gates points to “can be found not only in the novel but also in many slave narratives.” Reading the “two-story house” of the subtitle as an allegory for the nation, North and South, and the tyrannical white woman employer as an allegory for slavocracy, Carby pointed to the antislavery politics encoded just under the surface and argued that the book had a more mixed parentage than Gates had identified. Other historians and critics have located the book in relation to other literary traditions, such as conversion narratives—as Lisa Green and Cassandra Jackson point out in this volume. In the preface to Harriet Wilson’s New England, Gates continues to hold to his original identification, and to defend Our Nig’s first-novel-by-an-African-American-woman status.

This generically slippery, deceptively plainspoken text continues to attract interpreters. Given the tremendous impact Our Nig has already had on American literary studies, as well as the comparative rarity of self-authored texts by African American women in the nineteenth century, the moment is surely right for this first single volume devoted to Wilson and her book. In fact, Harriet Wilson’s New England is an even more ambitious and interesting project than a traditional collection of essays in textual interpretation would have been. It is itself a generic hybrid, the result of a highly unusual collaboration among community-based activists and academics, including cultural historians, regional historians, and engaged residents of Milford, New Hampshire—the town where Wilson spent her younger years.

Harriet Wilson’s New England aspires to provide a detailed and revealing portrait of the current state of knowledge about the social, economic, and cultural setting confronted by the small number of free blacks living in New England in Wilson’s day. Beyond description, its goal is to trace and analyze the history of racial formation, race consciousness, racism, and eventually historical erasure and amnesia. As many pages are devoted to this context as to Wilson’s book itself, clearly demonstrating the usefulness of putting historians and literary critics in conversation with one another. The result is an unusual stereoscopic effect, as we look through the local history lens with one eye and through the literary lens with the other. Although readers coming exclusively from one background or the other may need to make some adjustments to find the appropriate focal length, viewing Wilson and her racialized environment through the two lenses improves depth perception.

The editors explain in their introduction, “Making Space for Harriet E. Wilson,” that they intend the book to contribute to “the new regional studies” of New England’s racial history, which seek to destabilize and historicize the mythological “whitewashed” New England village of both popular imagination and nineteenth- and twentieth-century historiography. They see it as a complement to such works as Joseph A. Conforti’s Imagining New England (2001) and Joanne Pope Melish’s, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860 (1998).

In the essays in Part I, the social and economic history of small African American communities or individuals in Milford and other New Hampshire towns, such as Canterbury and Portsmouth, is painstakingly documented. To counter the “systematic forgetting of the complex racial history of the region,” the historians here have dug into archives, examined town records, reread local histories, and collected and interpreted material culture. Collectively, they illustrate “how New England as a region might have looked to a single and singular African American writer.”

Historians Barbara White and P. Gabrielle Foreman present hard-won documentary evidence, along with careful speculation about the contradictions and gaps in the record, of Harriet Wilson’s family, friendship, and mentoring networks. They largely verify the details of Frado’s history and extend Wilson’s own life story beyond the narrative in her book. Though some questions remain, and new discoveries may yet emerge, White and Foreman reveal a much more complex picture than we had of both the vulnerabilities and the resourcefulness of an impoverished, mixed-race working girl.

The story of Wilson’s parents’ mixed-race marriage, as briefly told in Our Nig, may be the most fictionalized section of the book, as critics have recognized, but key facts have been confirmed. After the death of Wilson’s African American father in her early childhood, Wilson’s white mother (now with a new African American partner) left the child Harriet with a neighboring white family—who, new research reveals, had abolitionist ties—and vanished from her life. Wilson’s mother was likely the 27-year-old Margaret Smith, who died in destitution from alcohol-related illness in Boston, shortly after abandoning her daughter. Like her book’s child-heroine, Wilson grew up an exploited and abused indentured servant in a white family, called “Bellmont” in the book. After leaving them at age 18, when she was legally free to do so, Wilson alternated between several years of unemployment, supported meagerly by the “poor house” charity of the town; a brief and unsuccessful marriage to a free black man, who according to Our Nig posed as an escaped slave to make money on the lecture circuit; and a variety of self-support efforts—including not only domestic work but also a more unusual period of travel through various New England towns peddling hair-care products.

Wilson explicitly represents Our Nig as yet another moneymaking enterprise, undertaken to support her child—though ultimately this did not succeed, and her seven-year-old son died in 1860, a few months after the book was copyrighted. Eric Gardner, in his essay “Of Bottles and Books,” argues convincingly that Wilson probably used her network of barbers, hair-care entrepreneurs, and customers to sell her self-published life story. He offers an interesting speculation about why the existing copies of the book seem to have been owned by young people or even children: Wilson may have pitched the book as a story of a girl’s trials and tribulations, and thus a moral teaching tool.

Because Our Nig is so clearly an indictment of Northern racism, particularly as spotlighted in the character of the evil mistress of the Bellmont household, and perhaps also because it frankly depicted a black antislavery speaker as a charlatan, it was never picked up by white or black abolitionist sponsors. Wilson herself did nothing with it after its small first edition. Foreman and Pitts explain that after the death of Wilson’s son, she relocated to Boston and turned to a career in Spiritualism (a volume of Wilson’s later speeches, edited by Foreman, is forthcoming).

In the second part of this collection, six text-analysis essays by literary scholars give the reader a taste of the variety of ways in which this still-provocative and puzzling narrative may be read. All are relatively accessible and would certainly provide the basis for lively discussion in college classrooms; several would also work well in high schools. Three are particularly noteworthy: Eve Allegra Raimon’s essay, “Miss Marsh’s Uncommon School Reform,” examines Frado’s surprisingly positive experience as the only child of color in her local public school, which she attends for three years. Raimon discusses the ideals of the antebellum educational reform movement that led to the establishment of “common schools” in New England and concludes:

In brief but pivotal scenes featuring Miss Marsh [the teacher] and her school, the author extends common school doctrine to include a rare vision of a racially inclusive republic. Thus at the center of Our Nig is rendered a truly progressive image of the public sphere in general and a genuinely transformative role of the public school in particular. . . .Frado’s unusual common school education together with her own impulse to become an autodidact helped her develop into an “uncommon” woman. Would that the racial history of public schooling in the United States had lived up to Miss Marsh’s ideals.

Lisa E. Green argues, in “The Disorderly Girl in Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig,” that Wilson

appropriates the prototypical young heroine of woman’s fiction who, in nineteenth-century parlance, may be called “the disorderly girl,” as a means to narrate another nineteenth-century story, the unsanctioned story of racial abuse in the antebellum North.

Realizing that “novels of the day that featured the disorderly girl were bestsellers,” Wilson hit upon a relatively nonthreatening way to tell the truth about her own sufferings under a middle-class white female mistress without unduly alienating middle-class white female readers. In a fascinating and nuanced reading of Frado’s behavioral and expressive strategies in her various relationships with other children and white adults, her “transgressive antics and disruptive speech,” Green invites us to see that Wilson uses her alter-ego to “act and speak in a manner in which. . .Wilson herself cannot.”

Finally, although I cannot do full justice to its complex argument here, I would like to mention Cassandra Jackson’s provocative but to my mind finally unsatisfying argument in her essay, “Beyond the Page: Rape and Failure of Genre.” Many of the “silences” Wilson points to in her text, says Jackson, stem from a likely experience of child rape at the hands of “Mrs. Bellmont.” Like other critics, Jackson acknowledges the absence of explicit references to sexual abuse, but she notes the possibility of self-censorship. One scholar whom she quotes says that silence about sexual matters may very well point to “unspeakable” events, such as rape or seduction by one of the men in the Bellmont household. However, another responds that “if Wilson was attempting to indicate that the Bellmont men raped Frado, there were plenty of conventions at her disposal to communicate such a transgression.”

Surely the beatings Mrs. Bellmont inflicts on Frado, as Wilson describes them, indicate a mad pleasure in torturing the child. Wilson points directly to the sadistic erotic charge: “[E]xcited by so much indulgence of a dangerous passion, she seemed left to unrestrained malice; and snatching a towel, stuffed the mouth of the sufferer, and beat her cruelly.” The repeated use of a wedge to force open Frado’s mouth and prevent her from calling for help is clearly torture, and itself qualifies as sexual abuse, if by that term we mean the forceful invasion of another person’s body. My objection to Jackson’s argument is her assumption that Frado must have experienced further, even more “unspeakable” invasions. Jackson’s evidence for this is primarily Wilson’s authorial comment that “I have purposely omitted things that would most provoke shame to those good antislavery friends at home.” She also offers as suggestive Frado’s “subsequent alienation from her body in the form of her question, ‘Oh why am I black?’” However, to my mind, a sufficient cause of “shame” to the “antislavery friends” would simply have been the fact, not mentioned in Our Nig but revealed by recent research, that “Mrs. Bellmont” was related to the abolitionist Hutchinson Family Singers.

Comparable self-censorship language in Sojourner Truth’s Narrative has impelled contemporary speculation of a similar kind by her biographer, Nell Irvin Painter, and in that case too, while I think it is legitimate to raise the question, I must answer, “Not proved.” (And see the brief discussion of similar questions about Harriet Tubman’s childhood, in my Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, 2003.) Silence can mean many different things, and our current desire to explore the silences that cover sexual abuse should not deafen us to silence’s other meanings.

The third part of the book may be of particular interest to the nonacademic audience the editors of this volume particularly aim to reach. In personal essays, four writers explain what the discovery of Wilson’s novel meant to them. John Ernest, a literary scholar, says that Our Nig helped him unlearn conventional wisdom at the beginning of his career and ask new questions about race in American cultural and social history. Activist Tami Sanders testifies to the resonance of Wilson’s story for her as a contemporary Milford resident who identifies as “mixed blood” or Metis. JerriAnne Boggis tells of her excitement at learning through Wilson’s book that Milford, where Boggis felt alien and unrooted, had a black history. Her subsequent leadership in organizing the grassroots Harriet Wilson Project led to public discussions, a celebration of Wilson’s life and achievement, and ultimately to the anthology itself. In a fourth piece, college student William Allen, who became active with the Harriet Wilson Project while in high school in Milford, writes eloquently of learning to identify with Wilson.

In one of the testimonial letters in the original appendix to Our Nig, Margaretta Thorn, evidently a white woman friendly to Wilson, testifies to “the many privations and mortifications she has had to pass through,” and adds, “being taken from home so young, and placed where she had nothing to love or cling to, I often wonder she had not grown up a monster.” Harriet Wilson’s New England both situates this unusual writer within a larger context that helps explain some of her resiliency and suggests that at some level, by the time she wrote her book—possibly in the process of writing it—she had come to understood that the monster was external to herself. With what satisfaction must she have incorporated into the portrait of herself as the “disorderly child” the information that Frado “contemplated administering poison to her mistress, to rid herself and the house of so detestable a plague.” We, the twenty-first century readers of her book, are very much in her debt, as well as in that of the scholars and activists in this collection of essays, for important information we will need as we peel history’s whitewash off the “Two-Story White House, North.”

Jean M. Humez is chair of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She has published many books and articles about African American women’s autobiography and Shaker women’s lives. Her most recent book is Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (2004).

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