Identity of Hannah Crafts (The Bondswoman’s Narrative) Revealed

From this morning’s New York Times 

In 2002, a novel thought to be the first written by an African-American woman became a best seller, praised for its dramatic depiction of Southern life in the mid-1850s through the observant eyes of a refined and literate house servant.

Gregg Hecimovich and Reverend Joseph Cooper

John Wheeler lived on the plantation where Hannah Bond escaped slavery.

But one part of the story remained a tantalizing secret: the author’s identity.

That literary mystery may have been solved by a professor of English in South Carolina, who said this week that after years of research, he has discovered the novelist’s name: Hannah Bond, a slave on a North Carolina plantation owned by John Hill Wheeler, is the actual writer of “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” the book signed by Hannah Crafts.

Beyond simply identifying the author, the professor’s research offers insight into one of the central mysteries of the novel, believed to be semi-autobiographical: how a house slave with limited access to education and books was heavily influenced by the great literature of her time, like “Bleak House” and “Jane Eyre,” and how she managed to pull off a daring escape from servitude, disguised as a man.

The professor, Gregg Hecimovich, the chairman of the English department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., has uncovered previously unknown details about Bond’s life that have shed light on how the novel was possibly written. The heavy influences of Dickens, for instance, particularly from “Bleak House,” can be explained by Bond’s onetime servitude on a plantation that routinely kept boarders from a nearby girls’ school; the curriculum there required the girls to recite passages of “Bleak House” from memory. Bond, secretly forming her own novel, could have listened while they studied, or spirited away a copy to read.

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