Forgotten or ignored by all but a handful of bibliographers—one of whom dismissed it as a text written by a white man—Harriet E. Adams Wilson's Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859) languished before its rediscovery by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and republication in 1983. Gates proved that Wilson authored the book and was a free African American. In part through the assertion that Our Nig was the first novel by an African American woman, he also actively advocated for its inclusion in the emerging canon of early African American literature.
While subsequent historians like Barbara White, P. Gabrielle Foreman, and Reginald H. Pitts have uncovered evidence that the book is exceedingly autobiographical, Our Nig has remained a key text in African American studies because of its own fascinating story of a young, poor, nominally free black child's coming of age in the racist North, because of its place vis-à-vis the slave narratives of the period (as well as its place among texts by women), and because of the compelling story of its author.
The book's stated purposes were much more modest—or, at least, much more personalized. Still, the book's broader attempts to assert both the need and the rights of free black children in the North may well have shaped both the book's plot and initial reception more than those stated purposes; such factors certainly shaped the book's play with genre and theme and so, too, the character of its modern reception.
PURPOSES AND PLOT
After offering the claim (standard to antebellum autobiography) that "abler pens" might improve upon "these crude narrations," Wilson directly sets out the book's purpose in her preface. "Deserted by kindred, disabled by failing health," she has been forced "to some experiment"—writing the book—to aid "in maintaining myself and child" (p. i). That child, George Mason Wilson, was seven when Our Nig was published. Throughout his youth, he and his mother were on and off the "Poor List" in Wilson's home of Milford, New Hampshire. Eventually, Wilson was forced to leave her child, first in the care of the Hillsborough County Poor Farm and later with a private family (probably Joshua and Irene Fisher Hutchinson), while she attempted to gain funds to care for him.
Wilson's call for aid—a call echoed by the three letters vouching for her character and circumstances that form the book's appendix—was based on sentiment but also on a sense of exchange: Wilson was trading her story for funds. The story Wilson tells, though, complicates both sentimental assumptions and the idea of exchange; the radicality of her critique, embodied in the novel's plot—as well as its complex positioning vis-à-vis genre and theme (described below)—may have put off the very readers she hoped would aid her.
Set in antebellum New England, the book centers on the title character Frado, "Our Nig," who is the daughter of a poverty-stricken white woman, Mag Smith, whose sexual and moral "fall" has left her an outcast, and a "kind-hearted African," Jim, who is willing to support her (pp. 7, 9). However, when Jim dies of consumption after the couple has two children, Mag abandons the six-year-old Frado, leaving her with the Bellmonts, a white family ruled by the "she-devil" Mrs. Bellmont. While husband John Bellmont and some of the Bellmont children are sympathetic to Frado's plight, Mrs. Bellmont and daughter Mary quickly turn the "our" in the book's title phrase into a term of complete ownership.
As the Bellmonts' "nig," Frado is subjected to increasing toil punctuated with beatings from Mrs. Bellmont; in essence, though she is technically, as the book's subtitle notes, a free black, she is enslaved. While the more kindly members of the Bellmont family (including the ineffectual Mr. Bellmont and his sister, Aunt Abby) make limited efforts to ease Frado's burden, their sympathy only causes Mrs. Bellmont's abuse to worsen. Frado struggles to come to terms with a world governed not by morality and law but by Mrs. Bellmont's whims: when the Bellmonts' son James tells her "you won't be whipped" if you "try to be a good girl," Frado can only cry, "If I do, I get whipped" (pp. 50–51). Frado is also deeply troubled that God made her black and Mrs. Bellmont white. Why, she wants to know, would a moral God not "make us both white?" And although James is unable to answer these "knotty queries," when he falls ill later in the book, it is his piety and kindness that draw Frado closer to Christianity (p. 51). But such ties remain limited; when Mrs. Bellmont tells Frado that "if she did not stop trying to be religious, she would whip her to death," Mr. Bellmont can only tell Frado, sadly, that she should attempt to avoid beatings because "you cannot endure beating as you once could" (p. 104).
In the book's turning point, Frado stands up for herself for the first time. As Mrs. Bellmont readies to beat her with a stick, Frado shouts, "Stop. . . . ! strike me, and I'll never work a mite more for you" and stands "like one who feels the stirring of free and independent thoughts" (p. 105). Mrs. Bellmont backs down.
The book's brief final chapters address Frado's life after leaving the Bellmonts—ongoing poverty, damaged health, and a failed marriage: "Watched by kidnappers, maltreated by professed abolitionists, who didn't want slaves at the South, nor niggers in their own houses, North. Faugh! To lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next one; awful!" (p. 129). And while the book's end offers some poetic justice—Mrs. Bellmont is reported to have "an agony in death unspeakable"—the narrative leaves Frado "still an invalid" asking "for your sympathy, gentle reader" (p. 130).
PUBLICATION AND RECEPTION
The first edition of Our Nig was printed by George C. Rand and Avery, a Boston firm, and copyrighted by Wilson on 18 August 1859. The book was inexpensively produced, probably in a small run, and the title page assertion that the book was "printed" rather than "published" by Rand suggests that the book may have been self-published or, at least, subsidized.
Rand had strong ties to abolitionism: among other jobs, he printed the two-volume first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin for John P. Jewett in 1852 and was friendly with the family of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879). Still, he seems to have made no effort to introduce the book to Boston's large and diverse abolitionist community. No contemporary reviews survive. Ownership patterns of extant copies as well as evidence that Wilson may have been, for a time, a sort of traveling saleswoman for hair products suggest that Wilson was primarily, if not solely, responsible for the book's distribution. Most copies trace to areas in New Hampshire and Massachusetts with which Wilson was familiar. Only one extant copy traces to a prominent abolitionist—William Lloyd Garrison Jr.—but researchers have not yet been able to determine if the book was consciously neglected by abolitionists or was simply not noticed. Similarly, while Wilson was, for a time, geographically positioned to place the book within Boston's noted black community—and even seems to call for such in her prefatory appeal "to my colored brethren universally for patronage"—researchers have found no evidence to explain its complete absence from that community's record.
The archival work of Foreman and Pitts proves that Wilson died on 28 June 1900 and is buried in the Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy, Massachusetts. Despite having lived long after her book's publication, she does not seem to have attempted to further its reputation. Although the book may have begun as a venture of hope, it must have soon turned into a painful reminder of the tragedies racial, class, and gender discrimination could cause: her young son, George Mason Wilson, died on 15 February 1860. Foreman and Pitts have proven in their landmark research that Wilson turned to spiritualism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This suggests that she needed to set aside and rewrite some of the most painful autobiographical pieces of the book. She asserted that through spiritualism "her father came and gave all the facts of his life and acquaintance with her mother, manifesting the tenderest interest in her" (Foreman and Pitts, p. xli). Through spiritualism, she regained the "kind-hearted African," whom she lost so early in life—and whose loss set in motion the tragic events of her childhood captured in her depiction of Frado.
If Wilson was not to rescue her book from obscurity, few nineteenth-century Americans would. Even Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) busily revised his once-small Narrative into much larger texts that focused more and more on what happened after slavery, and Frank J. Webb (1828–1894), author of one of the earliest African American novels, The Garies and Their Friends (1857), consistently asserted that his post–Civil War work was much better and much more important. White abolitionists from William Lloyd Garrison to Parker Pillsbury were intent on remembering themselves as the champions of a race, and their late-nineteenth-century histories of the movement gloss over the immense factionalism in the movement and say next to nothing of the extreme racial and gender prejudice that often fractured it. Literary criticism in its modern configuration simply did not exist; historians of American literature were much more interested in white male narratives that spoke to "American" values. Wilson's text was, in essence, lost.
Gates purchased a copy of the book from a rare book dealer in 1981 and was able to authenticate the book's authorship before reintroducing the book to the public and beginning the second phase of the book's reception. Gates's reintroduction of the book differed in almost every way from the book's original publication. Released by a major publisher, called "a black literary landmark" by the New York Times, emblazoned with laudatory quotations from major contemporary African American authors including Alice Walker and Ralph Ellison, and immediately celebrated by literary critics, the 1983 edition set off a flurry of scholarship as well as inclusion of excerpts from the book in several major anthologies. A third edition—with updated apparatus that linked the text to Gates's more recent discovery of an early black novel in manuscript, Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative—was issued in 2002. A fourth edition, with considerable new biographical information by Foreman and Pitts, came out in early 2005.
FICTION, AUTOBIOGRAPHY, AND HARRIET WILSON
While literary historians have spent great energy filling in the details of Harriet Wilson's biography, the status of Our Nig as a novel has also been actively discussed. It could be argued that the immense emphasis placed on establishing the book as fiction came in part from earlier recovery efforts in African American literary study. Both William Wells Brown's novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853) and Frank J. Webb's novel The Garies and Their Friends were republished in the late 1960s, and both were pointed to as important—albeit sometimes uneasy—ancestors of the then-flowering Black Arts movement. The recovery of Harriet Wilson—in both her story's form and in her story's reception (indeed, in her very biography)—clearly spoke to the struggle for artistic forebears. Furthermore, the very term "novel" suggested a level of critical literacy and artistry that went beyond many of the immense number of slave narratives that remain understudied. Beyond such contextual factors, there are many features of Wilson's text that are, indeed, fully in line with novelistic technique, including its third-person narrator, its characterization, its epigraphs, and its thematic concerns.
It has become more and more clear that the events of Frado's life run painfully parallel with those of Harriet Wilson's. Foreman and Pitts have, in Wilson's likely parents (African American Joshua Green and white Margaret Smith), found real-life figures that echo Jim and Mag Smith in almost every way. Barbara White has painstakingly detailed how fully and exactly the Bellmont family corresponds to the family of Nehemiah Hayward Jr. (1778–1849) and Rebecca Hutchinson Hayward (1780–1850). Gates and White have proven how the book's calls for aid were based on the facts of Harriet Wilson's life, and Foreman and Pitts have established exceedingly likely candidates for the authors of the appendix's letters in Calvin Dascomb Sr. (who signed himself "C. D. S."), Jane Chapman Demond ("Allida"), and Laura Wright Hutchinson ("Margaretta Thorn"). In addition to providing a fuller sense of the correspondence between Wilson's text and her life, the work of these scholars raises difficult questions for students of the antebellum North and of organized abolitionism. Rebecca Hutchinson Hayward, for example, as White has skillfully documented, was close kin to the Hutchinson Family Singers, perhaps the most famous abolitionist entertainers of their day. Milford, New Hampshire, too, as shown by Foreman, Pitts, and R. J. Ellis, was, although small, a kind of abolitionist hub for the surrounding area. That Harriet Wilson was raised around—and so mistreated within—such a strongly abolitionist community reminds readers of the pervasive cultural factors that led to her book's neglect.
In the end, the point may not be whether Harriet Wilson's book is a novel or an autobiography. Rather, it may be that, in the face of the difficulties in Wilson's life, Our Nig so effectively and richly dances between the two—and dances among a range of other genres—in its definition and treatment of themes key to Wilson's socioeconomic, racial, and gendered position in the antebellum North.
GENRE(S), THEMES, AND CONTEXTS
Our Nig, then, is at once participant in several genres and fully a member of none. If it is a novel, it is a heavily autobiographical one; if an autobiography, one structured and styled as a novel. It certainly tells a story of a kind of slavery from the point of view of the enslaved—and so is a "slave's narrative"—but the location and character of that slavery are far different from what readers would expect. It has many of the trappings of an antebellum sentimental novel but often exposes both sentimentality's failings and potential for hypocrisy. In "talking back" to all of these genres and their inherent themes, Wilson attempts to make space for voices like her own, for persons like herself; whether consciously or not, Wilson's book demonstrates the ways antebellum American literature actively and passively excluded the stories of free blacks in the North.
Our Nig's similarities to the slave narrative are perhaps most obvious; Wilson's extended subtitle—"Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North, Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There"—calls readers' attention to such similarities immediately. As in most slave narratives, Wilson's virtual enslavement is clearly race-based, is repeatedly punctuated with brutality, and damages her spirit as much as her body. Like Frederick Douglass in his battle with the "slave-breaker" Covey, she finally reaches a moment where she knows she must resist. That resistance is both the turning point of the narrative and the signal of her eventual escape from the evil Mrs. Bellmont. Beyond these similarities in content and structure, both the text's pairing with authenticating documents and its bifurcation of its audience along racial lines also echo slave narratives of the period.
But Wilson's story takes place in the North—the idealized end of many slave narratives—and her title page reminds readers of this, too. Rather than an evil southern planter, her chief tormentor is a northern churchgoing mother. When Wilson finally marries, it is to a free black who "had never seen the South" but created fictional "illiterate harangues" that served as "humbugs for hungry abolitionists" (p. 128). In a text full of wordplay (as the subtitle asserts, there are two very different "stories" of slavery told in the North; the white house is, indeed, an embodiment of whiteness as well as reminding readers of the White House, and so forth), Wilson may even play with pieces of the most famous slave narratives. Wilson, for example, would have known of Frederick Douglass and his Narrative—and perhaps of his master's assertion that "if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell" (p. 33); the "ell" that Wilson gains, her room in the farmhouse's ell above the kitchen (referred to in the text as the "L chamber"), symbolizes how boxed in and distanced from the domestic hearth free blacks in the North were. And, of course, in painful irony, in buying a book called Our Nig, readers were in one way purchasing a life—the life of "Our Nig."
The novel's critique of domestic ideology is even more stinging, in part because Wilson's torment takes place in a home that is ruled by a woman and a mother. As in many examples of sentimental fiction, the main character is a young girl in need, and the plot follows her trials and eventual triumph in a kind of bildungsroman. Often, indeed, the triumph is a direct result of the young heroine learning to deal with her trials sentimentally—that is, with benevolent fellow feeling centered on Christian principles. That sense of benevolent empathy and sympathy, embodied in both tears and deeds, calls on characters and readers to consider larger social ends (the version of abolitionism in books like Uncle Tom's Cabin [1851–1852] or the antipoverty stance suggested by Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter ).
Our Nig certainly has all of these features except the unified triumph that often ends such novels. But this lack of a clear triumph figures twofold in examining the book. First, any triumph in Our Nig is dependent upon readers: only if those around Wilson buy her book and offer support for her eminently sentimental goals—only if prospective book buyers put domestic ideology into action—will she be reunited with her child and triumph. Second, though, the lack of a clear victory at the end of the book points to the ways in which those who surround Frado are antisentimental specifically because of her racial difference. Benevolent fellow feeling, it seems, only extends to certain fellows; the idea that Christian principles allow transcendent sympathy is literally beaten out of Frado by the churchgoing Mrs. Bellmont. The marriage and child that often end sentimental fiction are exploded by the lies of her husband—lies that emphasize that much of the seeming sentiment among abolitionist audiences may actually be nothing more than a prurient interest in titillating stories. Beyond general themes, Wilson may also play consciously with readers' expectations of individual words here: Mrs. Bellmont, often referred to as "Mrs. B."—may, for example, call to mind another famous Mrs. B. who opens her home to a young female slave and who rules that home through domestic ideology, Uncle Tom's Cabin's Mrs. Bird, who takes in the fugitive Eliza and convinces her reluctant senator husband to allow it. Wilson's Mrs. B., of course, takes the desperate youth in, but to enslave her rather than to
The excerpts below, drawn from chapters 3 and 10, illustrate the level of brutality suffered by Frado, the protagonist of Our Nig, and the moment when she takes a stand against that brutality.
Frado was called early in the morning by her new mistress. Her first work was to feed the hens. She was shown how it was always to be done, and in no other way; any departure from this rule to be punished by a whipping. She was then accompanied by Jack to drive the cows to pasture, so she might learn the way. Upon her return she was allowed to eat her breakfast, consisting of a bowl of skimmed milk, with brown bread crusts, which she was told to eat, standing, by the kitchen table, and must not be over ten minutes about it. Meanwhile the family were taking their morning meal in the dining-room. This over, she was placed on a cricket to wash the common dishes; she was to be in waiting always to bring wood and chips, to run hither and thither from room to room.
A large amount of dish-washing for small hands followed dinner. Then the same after tea and going after the cows finished her first day's work. It was a new discipline to the child. She found some attractions about the place, and she retired to rest at night more willing to remain. The same routine followed day after day, with slight variation; adding a little more work, and spicing the toil with "words that burn," and frequent blows on her head. These were great annoyances to Frado, and had she known where her mother was, she would have gone at once to her. She was often greatly wearied, and silently wept over her sad fate. At first she wept aloud, which Mrs. Bellmont noticed by applying a rawhide, always at hand in the kitchen. It was a symptom of discontent and complaining which must be "nipped in the bud," she said.
Mr. Bellmont found himself unable to do what James or Jack could accomplish for her. He talked with her seriously, told her he had seen her many times punished undeservedly; he did not wish to have her saucy or disrespectful, but when she was sure she did not deserve a whipping, to avoid it if she could. "You are looking sick," he added, "you cannot endure beating as you once could."
It was not long before an opportunity offered of profiting by his advice. She was sent for wood, and not returning as soon as Mrs. B. calculated, she followed her, and, snatching from the pile a stick, raised it over her.
"Stop!" shouted Frado, "strike me, and I'll never work a mite more for you;" and throwing down what she had gathered, stood like one who feels the stirring of free and independent thoughts.
By this unexpected demonstration, her mistress, in amazement, dropped her weapon, desisting from her purpose of chastisement. Frado walked towards the house, her mistress following with the wood she herself was sent after. She did not know, before, that she had a power to ward off assaults. Her triumph in seeing her enter the door with her burden, repaid her for much of her former suffering.
It was characteristic of Mrs. B. never to rise in her majesty, unless she was sure she should be victorious.
This affair never met with an "after clap," like many others.
Wilson, Our Nig, pp. 29–30, 104–105.
aid her. The sentimental aspects of Our Nig seem to consciously call attention to the fact that the book is not—and is blocked from being—fully sentimental because of the pervasive racism in the North.
Because Frado is not technically a slave, Foreman and Pitts also place Our Nig in dialogue with captivity narratives; Ellis has called attention to Our Nig's conversation with narratives of New England rural life; and Elizabeth J. West considers how Our Nig rewrites key features of nineteenth-century conversion narratives. These elaborations and connections further suggest the richness of this text. More than a century after its original publication—and after its probable failure at its central task of supporting Harriet Wilson's young son—Our Nig reminds readers of the need for sentiment, the distance over which slavery's shadows still fall, and the need to conceive of genres and approaches that feature voices still often unheard.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of aFree Black. Boston: Printed by Geo. C. Rand and Avery, 1859. In-text quotations are from this edition.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of aFree Black. Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of aFree Black. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Vintage, 1983, 2002. Includes a facsimile of the original text.
Ellis, R. J. Harriet Wilson's "Our Nig": A CulturalBiography of a "Two-Story" African American Novel. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 2003.
Ernest, John. "Economies of Identity: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig." PMLA 109, no. 3 (1994): 424–438.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle. "The Spoken and the Silenced in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Our Nig." Callaloo 13, no. 2 (1990): 313–324.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle, and Reginald H. Pitts. "Introduction," "Chronologies," and "Notes." In Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet Wilson. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Gardner, Eric. "'This Attempt of their Sister': Our Nig from Printer to Readers." New England Quarterly 66, no. 2 (1993): 226–246.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Introduction," "Chronology," "Notes," and "Afterword." In Our Nig, by Harriet Wilson. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Parallel Discursive Universes: Fictions of the Self in Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig." In his Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self, pp. 125–149. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Preface," "Introduction," "Chronology," "Notes," and "Afterword." In Our Nig, by Harriet Wilson. New York: Vintage, 2002.
Stern, Julia. "Excavating Genre in Our Nig." American Literature 67, no. 3 (1995): 439–466.
West, Elizabeth J. "Reworking the Conversion Narrative: Race and Christianity in Our Nig." MELUS 24, no. 2 (1999): 3–27.
White, Barbara. "'Our Nig' and the She-Devil: New Information about Harriet Wilson and the 'Bellmont' Family." American Literature 65, no. 1 (1993): 19–52. This article is also included in the 2002 edition of Our Nig.