Considered the first African American woman to publish a novel in English, Harriet E. Adams Wilson (c. 1827-c. 1863) is also distinguished as the first black, male or female, to publish a novel in the United States.
Harriet E. Adams Wilson's book, Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There, is a thinly veiled fictional autobiography depicting the brutality of white racism in the antebellum North. The protagonist is a free, mulatto girl named Alfrado. Abandoned by her parents at the age of six, she is sentenced to years of cruel indentured servitude. The book was originally printed in Boston in 1859, and apparently soon sank into literary obscurity, as virtually no early critical comment on the novel exists. Discovered in 1981 in a Manhattan bookstore by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Cornell University professor, the book was republished in 1983, with an introduction by Gates. Its discovery forced literary historians to restructure the chronology of black literature, displacing William Wells Brown from his previously accepted position as the first African American novelist. His Clotel: or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States was originally published in London in 1853, but did not appear in the United States until 1864, when it was published in Boston as Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States.
Details of Life are Scarce
Almost all that is known of Wilson's life is confined to the ten-year period between 1850 and 1860, the time frame covered by her novel. In the tradition of the slave narrative, letters of support appear as an appendix to the novel, establishing the truth of its autobiographical aspects. Gates conducted exhaustive research in an attempt to confirm the author as the subject of its biographical detail. Although it yielded pitifully few facts about Wilson's tragic life, this research did verify enough to rescue Wilson and her novel from literary oblivion.
The dates of Wilson's birth and death remain unknown. Census reports provide conflicting records of her possible birth date and birthplace. The 1850 federal census of New Hampshire lists Harriet Adams, age 22, as living in Milford, New Hampshire, suggesting a birth date or 1827 or 1828. Her birthplace is listed merely as "New Hampshire." The 1860 Boston federal census records a Mrs. Harriet E. Wilson, age 52—a 20-year discrepancy from the previous record—born in Fredericksburg, Virginia. If this age is correct, her birth date would be 1807 or 1808. In both census reports she is listed as "black."
Other records indicate that in 1850 Harriet Adams lived with the white Samuel Boyles family in Milford, New Hampshire. On October 6, 1851, she married Thomas Wilson in Milford. Their son, George Mason Wilson, was likely born in May or June of 1852. He was probably their first and only child. He was born at Goffstown, New Hampshire, which was near Milford and was the location of the Hills-borough County Farm. As Gates explained in his introduction to the second edition of Our Nig, "One of the letters appended to Our Nig states that, abandoned by her husband, the author … was forced … to go to the 'County House,' where she gave birth to a child."
A "Harriet Wilson, Widow" is listed in the Boston City Directory in 1855. Two Harriet Wilsons are listed in the 1856 Directory, one a "widow" and one a "dressmaker." Gates has suggested these two Harriet Wilsons may well be the same person. Between 1857 and 1863, only "Harriet Wilson, Widow" appears. After 1863, Harriet Wilson disappears from public record completely. As Margo Jefferson wrote in the Nation in 1983, "That we do not know the date of Harriet Wilson's death says a great deal about the remainder of her life."
The facts gleaned from the public records search, Gates wrote, "correspond dramatically to assertions about the life of the author … that were made by three acquaintances who endorsed her novel… . When brought together, these facts leave no doubt that the author of Our Nig, who signed her copyright as 'Mrs. H. E. Wilson' and Harriet E. Adams Wilson, are the same person." Gates continued, "Another source of confirmation is the of Our Nig—described as autobiographical by her supporters—which parallels major events of Mrs. Wilson's life that we have been able to verify."
Wrote Novel for Economic Reasons
An examination of both the plot of Our Nig as well as the letters of testimonial appended to the book reveal that Harriet Adams lost her parents at an early age, and was then indentured to a white family, which overworked her mercilessly and ruined her health. It was this precarious health which caused her, finally, to place her son in a foster home. She subsequently wrote her novel in an attempt to raise enough money to be reunited with her child. In her preface, Wilson wrote, "In offering to the public the following pages, the writer confesses her inability to minister to the refined and cultivated, the pleasure supplied by abler pens. It is not for such these crude narrations appear. Deserted by kindred, disabled by failing health, I am forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life." Toward that end, Wilson asked, "I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping that they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders."
Unfortunately, the hoped-for patronage did not materialize, and tragically, Wilson's son George died of fever less than six months after her novel was published. Gates noted in 1987, "The irony is profound. George's death certificate made possible the confirmation of a number of details about Wilson, which parallel rather closely statements made about her by three of her friends and printed as an 'appendix' to Our Nig. George's death serves as a convenient emblem of the tragic irony of his mother's life and subsequent literary reputation."
Several factors may have contributed to the many years of obscurity to which Our Nig was subjected after publication. The most compelling factor may have been what Gates called "the boldness of her themes." In his introduction to Our Nig he wrote, "Interracial marriage, it is fair to say, was not a popular subject for representation in either antislavery or proslavery novels." A further likely cause for rejection of the novel can be found in the subject of the book, which is clearly depicted in its lengthy subtitle: the hypocrisy of the brutal racism practiced by Northern whites. Although in her preface Wilson anticipated "severe criticisms" from Northern abolitionists, she further wrote, "I have purposely omitted what would most provoke shame in our anti-slavery friends at home." Nevertheless, "the book did not gain attention or a ready market—perhaps because she had brought that shame she had feared to the antislavery people of the North," wrote Ann Allen Shockley in Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933. Another reason the book was overlooked may have been due to the fact that Wilson was erroneously identified as white. Monroe Work's A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America lists Mrs. H. E. Wilson as a white author who wrote novels "relating to the Negro."
Novel Considered a Literary Landmark
While many critics hesitate to imbue Our Nig with classic literary status, it is considered a black literary landmark. Francis Browne wrote in 1987 that the novel "is an indictment, not alone of oppression, but of the hypocritical liberalism that held sway in the North during the middle years of the nineteenth century when all eyes were focused on the heinous legalized servitude in the South. The irony resonates when one recognizes that the locales of the novel, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, were hotbeds of abolition… ." Similarly, Shockley stated, "Aside from its firsts, the novel can be deemed important for other reasons. It attests to prejudice and a different kind of black bondage in the North as a time when Abolitionists were violently attacking slavery in the South… . Harriet E. Adams Wilson unknowingly set a precedent with her personal fictionalized memoir of a free—yet unfree—black northern woman of her time."
As the forerunner of the African-American literary tradition, Gates argued in 1983 that "Our Nig stands as a 'missing link,' as it were, between the sustained and well-developed tradition of black autobiography and the slow emergence of a distinctive black voice in fiction." He has suggested that Wilson's combination of "the received conventions of the sentimental novel with certain key conventions of the slave narratives" became a unique new literary form. Had it been available much earlier, "perhaps the black literary tradition would have developed more quickly and more resolutely than it did." Francis Browne concluded in 1987, "Wilson's art might indeed be defective, but her imaginative effort … has proven itself worthy and signally prophetic." Gates stated in 1987, "We can cogently argue … that Wilson is the most accomplished and subtle black novelist of the nineteenth century."
Further Reading on Harriet E. Wilson
Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, 1987.
Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Black Firsts: 2000 Years of Extraordinary Achievement, Gale Research, 1995, pp. 414-415.
Draper, James P., Black Literature Criticism, Gale Research, Vol.3, 1975-1983.
Browne, Francis, Fiction International, Vol. 17:2, 1987, pp. 149-154.
Harris, Trudier, editor, "Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Research, Vol. 50, 1986, pp. 268-271.
Pryse, Marjorie J., and Hortense Spillers, editor, "Adding Color and Contour to Early American Self-Portraitures: Autobiographical Writings of Afro-American Women," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, Indiana University Press, 1985.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Introduction," in Our Nig: or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, In a Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There, 2nd ed., Vintage Books, 1983, pp. xi-lv.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self, 1987, pp. 125-163.
Jefferson, Margo, "Down & Out & Black in Boston," in Nation, May 28, 1983, pp. 675-677.
Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 1266-1268.
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 84-88.
Work, Monroe, A Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America, Octagon Books, 1928.