September 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Slave Manuscript Mystery Solved

Slave Mss.jpgThis is how buying an obscure manuscript for $8,500 at an auction can turn into a bestselling book, a scholarly puzzle spanning a decade, and a groundbreaking literary discovery.

In early 2001, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., received a catalogue from Swann Galleries, containing "Printed and Manuscript African-Americana. In the catalogue he noted with interest lot 30, an unpublished original manuscript thought to be a fictionalized biography of escaped slave Hannah Crafts. That it came from the collection of African-American historian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley made it all the more interesting to Gates. On auction day, February 15, 2001, a friend attended the auction for him and secured the manuscript for $8,500. Gates was the only bidder. He then spent the next several months speaking with document experts, including Kenneth Rendell and Joe Nickell, and verifying the manuscript's authenticity.

The Bondwoman's Narrative: A Novel by Hannah Crafts, edited and with an introduction by Gates, was published by Warner Books the following year. It became a bestseller, and Gates donated the manuscript to the Beinecke Library at Yale. And even though Gates had been unable to say for certain who Crafts was--Crafts was presumed to be a pseudonym--the book's publication was enough of a happy ending.

Eleven years later, Gregg Hecimovich, a professor English at Winthrop University in South Carolina, believes he has "found" Crafts' real name: Hannah Bond. In an article in yesterday's New York Times, Hecimovich described his decade of "obsessive" researching of wills, diaries, almanacs, and public records. He intends to publish his findings in a forthcoming book. Gates commented, "Words cannot express how meaningful this is to African-American literary studies...It revolutionizes our understanding of the canon of black women's literature."  

Image: The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.