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Harriet E. Wilson: Fiction


Rarely has an author's identity been so instrumental in the reclamation of her writing. Long thought to be white, Harriet E. Wilson and her one novel, Our Nig, had been mere footnotes to nineteenth-century American literary history, and obscure ones at that, until 1981. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and David Curtis's research came on the heels of the republication of rediscovered white women writers and the incipient attention paid to early African American women authors. When in 1984 Gates established that Wilson was indeed the first Black person to publish a novel in the United States, there was a developing historical and critical context into which to fit her work. Our Nig's republication is both a reflection of and a key contribution to the vast resurrection of writings by what Toni Morrison might call disremembered Black women.

Until the 1980s, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was widely accepted to be the first Black woman to publish a short story (1859) and a novel (1892). Yet, since Our Nig pushed back the conception of Black women's novelistic writing thirty-three years, scores of newly rediscovered writers—Emma Dunham Kelley and Amelia E. Johnson, for example—and new novels by authors only established in the last fifteen years (such as Harper's and Pauline E. Hopkins's) have been republished.

Biographical information on Harriet Adams Wilson has grown substantially since Gates's initial research. Barbara White discovered the Hayward family of Milford, New Hampshire, to be the model for the Bellmonts of Our Nig. Nehemiah Hayward, “Mr. Bellmont,” married Rebecca Hutchinson, who belonged to a wealthy and established family of Milford, New Hampshire, Harriet Wilson's birthplace. Rebecca, the “she–devil” of Our Nig, was a direct descendant of Anne Hutchinson and cousin to the famous abolitionist Hutchinson family singers. Born in 1825 in Milford, Harriet E. Adams was abandoned by her mother and left at the Haywards' home when she was six. After twelve years of indentured servitude, she left the Haywards when she was eighteen. She went to work for other families in the area, but by 1847 had become a pauper. In 1850, the year the Fugitive Slave Act endangered all Blacks living in the North, Adams moved to Ware, Massachusetts, seeking employment. One year later, she married Thomas Wilson, an attractive lecturer who later proved to be a free man passing as a fugitive slave in order to earn his living by speaking of slavery's horrors. Thomas Wilson's abandonment of his wife and newborn son proved to be the catalyst for her to write a novel that closely reflected her own experiences. Our Nig rivals slave narratives in its description of white violence directed toward the narrators themselves.

The “commands of God” and the demands of poverty were often accepted as proper justifications for a woman's entrance into the public realm of publishing. Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed to have seen the final scenes of Uncle Tom's Cabin in a vision. Because of her confinement to bed, the result of the brutal treatment she received, Wilson was to write Our Nig in order to raise money to sustain herself and to reclaim her son; because of her physical and economic situation, he had been placed under others' care. Unfortunately, George Mason Wilson, then seven years old, died five months after the novel's publication; ironically, his death certificate established his mother's racial identity and facilitated her reintroduction to African American letters.



Oh, Grief beyond all other griefs, when fate First leaves the young heart lone and desolate In the wide world, without that only tie For which it loved to live or feared to die; Lorn as the hung-up lute, that ne'er hath spoken Since the sad day its master-chord was broken! MOORE.

LONELY MAG SMITH! See her as she walks with downcast eyes and heavy heart. It was not always thus. She HAD a loving, trusting heart. Early deprived of parental guardianship, far removed from relatives, she was left to guide her tiny boat over life's surges alone and inexperienced. As she merged into womanhood, unprotected, uncherished, uncared for, there fell on her ear the music of love, awakening an intensity of emotion long dormant. It whispered of an elevation before unaspired to; of ease and plenty her simple heart had never dreamed of as hers. She knew the voice of her charmer, so ravishing, sounded far above her. It seemed like an angel's, alluring her upward and onward. She thought she could ascend to him and become an equal. She surrendered to him a priceless gem, which he proudly garnered as a trophy, with those of other victims, and left her to her fate. The world seemed full of hateful deceivers and crushing arrogance. 1 Conscious that the great bond of union to her former companions was severed, that the disdain of others would be insupportable, she determined to leave the few friends she possessed, and seek an asylum among strangers. Her offspring came unwelcomed, and before its nativity numbered weeks, it passed from earth, ascending to a purer and better life. "God be thanked," ejaculated Mag, as she saw its breathing cease; "no one can taunt HER with my ruin." Blessed release! may we all respond. How many pure, innocent children not only inherit a wicked heart of their own, claiming life-long scrutiny and restraint, but are heirs also of parental disgrace and calumny, from which only long years of patient endurance in paths of rectitude can disencumber them. Mag's new home was soon contaminated by the publicity of her fall; she had a feeling of degradation oppressing her; but she resolved to be circumspect, and try to regain in a measure what she had lost. Then some foul tongue would jest of her shame, and averted looks and cold greetings disheartened her. She saw she could not bury in forgetfulness her misdeed, so she resolved to leave her home and seek another in the place she at first fled from. Alas, how fearful are we to be first in extending a helping hand to those who stagger in the mires of infamy; to speak the first words of hope and warning to those emerging into the sunlight of morality! Who can tell what numbers, advancing just far enough to hear a cold welcome and join in the reserved converse of 2 professed reformers, disappointed, disheartened, have chosen to dwell in unclean places, rather than encounter these "holier-than-thou" of the great brotherhood of man! Such was Mag's experience; and disdaining to ask favor or friendship from a sneering world, she resolved to shut herself up in a hovel she had often passed in better days, and which she knew to be untenanted. She vowed to ask no favors of familiar faces; to die neglected and forgotten before she would be dependent on any. Removed from the village, she was seldom seen except as upon your introduction, gentle reader, with downcast visage, returning her work to her employer, and thus providing herself with the means of subsistence. In two years many hands craved the same avocation; foreigners who cheapened toil and clamored for a livelihood, competed with her, and she could not thus sustain herself. She was now above no drudgery. Occasionally old acquaintances called to be favored with help of some kind, which she was glad to bestow for the sake of the money it would bring her; but the association with them was such a painful reminder of by-gones, she returned to her hut morose and revengeful, refusing all offers of a better home than she possessed. Thus she lived for years, hugging her wrongs, but making no effort to escape. She had never known plenty, scarcely competency; but the present was beyond comparison with those innocent years when the coronet of virtue was hers. Every year her melancholy increased, her means diminished. At last no one seemed to notice her, save a kind-hearted African, who often called to inquire after her health and to see if she needed any fuel, he having the responsibility of furnishing that article, and she in return mending or making garments. "How much you earn dis week, Mag?" asked he one Saturday evening. "Little enough, Jim. Two or three days without any dinner. I washed for the Reeds, and did a small job for Mrs. Bellmont; that's all. I shall starve soon, unless I can get more to do. Folks seem as afraid to come here as if they expected to get some awful disease. I don't believe there is a person in the world but would be glad to have me dead and out of the way." "No, no, Mag! don't talk so. You shan't starve so long as I have barrels to hoop. Peter Greene boards me cheap. I'll help you, if nobody else will." A tear stood in Mag's faded eye. "I'm glad," she said, with a softer tone than before, "if there is ONE who isn't glad to see me suffer. I b'lieve all Singleton wants to see me punished, and feel as if they could tell when I've been punished long enough. It's a long day ahead they'll set it, I reckon." After the usual supply of fuel was prepared, Jim returned home. Full of pity for Mag, he set about devising measures for her relief. "By golly!" said he to himself one day—for he had become so absorbed in Mag's interest that he had fallen into a habit of musing aloud—"By golly! I wish she'd MARRY me." "Who?" shouted Pete Greene, suddenly starting from an unobserved corner of the rude shop. "Where you come from, you sly nigger!" exclaimed Jim. "Come, tell me, who is't?" said Pete; "Mag Smith, you want to marry?" "Git out, Pete! and when you come in dis shop again, let a nigger know it. Don't steal in like a thief." Pity and love know little severance. One attends the other. Jim acknowledged the presence of the former, and his efforts in Mag's behalf told also of a finer principle. This sudden expedient which he had unintentionally disclosed, roused his thinking and inventive powers to study upon the best method of introducing the subject to Mag. He belted his barrels, with many a scheme revolving in his mind, none of which quite satisfied him, or seemed, on the whole, expedient. He thought of the pleasing contrast between her fair face and his own dark skin; the smooth, straight hair, which he had once, in expression of pity, kindly stroked on her now wrinkled but once fair brow. There was a tempest gathering in his heart, and at last, to ease his pent-up passion, he exclaimed aloud, "By golly!" Recollecting his former exposure, he glanced around to see if Pete was in hearing again. Satisfied on this point, he continued: "She'd be as much of a prize to me as she'd fall short of coming up to the mark with white folks. I don't care for past things. I've done things 'fore now I's 'shamed of. She's good enough for me, any how." One more glance about the premises to be sure Pete was away. The next Saturday night brought Jim to the hovel again. The cold was fast coming to tarry its apportioned time. Mag was nearly despairing of meeting its rigor. "How's the wood, Mag?" asked Jim. "All gone; and no more to cut, any how," was the reply. "Too bad!" Jim said. His truthful reply would have been, I'm glad. "Anything to eat in the house?" continued he. "No," replied Mag. "Too bad!" again, orally, with the same INWARD gratulation as before. "Well, Mag," said Jim, after a short pause, "you's down low enough. I don't see but I've got to take care of ye. 'Sposin' we marry!" Mag raised her eyes, full of amazement, and uttered a sonorous "What?" Jim felt abashed for a moment. He knew well what were her objections. "You's had trial of white folks any how. They run off and left ye, and now none of 'em come near ye to see if you's dead or alive. I's black outside, I know, but I's got a white heart inside. Which you rather have, a black heart in a white skin, or a white heart in a black one?" "Oh, dear!" sighed Mag; "Nobody on earth cares for ME—" "I do," interrupted Jim. "I can do but two things," said she, "beg my living, or get it from you." "Take me, Mag. I can give you a better home than this, and not let you suffer so." He prevailed; they married. You can philosophize, gentle reader, upon the impropriety of such unions, and preach dozens of sermons on the evils of amalgamation. Want is a more powerful philosopher and preacher. Poor Mag. She has sundered another bond which held her to her fellows. She has descended another step down the ladder of infamy.


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