Oh So Old, But Brand New

1856 wedding photo of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and Malvina Shanklin Harlan, author of the memoir "Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911." AP

This spring, two "new" writers will be published.

They have much in common: Both are female, spent good portions of their lives in the South and were born in the first half of the 19th century. But their differences are profound.

Hannah Crafts, author of the novel "The Bondwoman's Narrative," is believed to be an escaped black slave. Malvina Harlan, author of the memoir "Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911," was the white, educated wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan.

"Both of these documents were neglected - 'The Bondwoman's Narrative,' because nobody knew it was there, and Malvina's manuscript because nobody was taking it seriously," says Linda Przybyszewski, associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and author of "The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan."

If authentic, Crafts' tale of an escaped slave is the only known novel written by a black female slave and possibly the first ever written by a black woman.

"This is the only surviving belletristic (fine literature) manuscript by a black author in the 19th century," says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of Harvard's Afro-American Studies department. "It exists in a class by itself."

Gates found the manuscript last year at Swann Galleries' annual auction of African-American memorabilia in New York City. Gates called on various scholars to help validate the book, including Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry-International who helped prove that diaries allegedly written by Jack the Ripper were fakes.

Gates had done the initial legwork necessary to authenticate the novel, which had languished in almost total obscurity since its creation during the middle of the 19th century.

"Some Memories of a Long Life" has also escaped notice in the past, though for different reasons. Stored with the Harlan papers in the Library of Congress, the memoir has long been available to historians. But it took the interest of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who came across the manuscript while researching a speech, to get it published.

Ginsburg got an assist from Przybyszewski, who edited and annotated the memoir, and wrote the book's afterward.

Although Przybyszewski found Malvina Harlan's thoughts invaluable while researching her book, the memoirs had been largely ignored by fellow scholars.

"Until very recently, there haven't been too many female legal historians," Przybyszewski says. "I would be really surprised if there weren't a lot of documents written by women overlooked in histories written by men who just wanted to overlook them."

One noted historian, Przybyszewski recalls, even told her that he didn't think "the wives have anything to tell us."

Historians were eager to dismiss Malvina Harlan's memoir for another reason: Justice Harlan is a hero among civil rights supporters for his dissent in the 1896 "Plessy v. Ferguson" decision, which upheld the constitutionality of "separate, but equal" and allowed racial segregation in the South.

"A lot of people wanted to find in him a white liberal of the 20th century," Przybyszewski says. "Malvina makes it really clear that that's not what he was, that he lived with a very definite idea of racial hierarchy and servitude. People were very uncomfortable with that and so it was easy to ignore her."

While "Some Memories of a Long Life" is full of charming details and anecdotes about the Harlans' social and domestic life, it also reveals the racial attitudes of the justice and his wife.

Although she came from a Northern abolitionist family, Malvina Harlan quickly adjusted to life with slaves and clearly believed, along with her husband, that there were strong racial distinctions between whites and blacks.

Describing the death of a young slave who fell asleep and burned to death when her clothing caught fire on a candle, Malvina Harlan notes that she was "unconscious, at first, of the heat that would have quickly awakened one of another race."

This benign view of slavery, in which "the unfortunate race" is quite content to serve, is refuted in "The Bondwoman's Narrative."

"The greatest curse of slavery is its heriditary (sic) character," Crafts wrote. "The father leaves to his son an inheritance of toil and misery, and his place on the fetid straw in the miserable corner, with no hope or possibility of anything better."

In the tradition of such slave narratives as "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," Crafts offers details on slave traders, arranged marriages and the sexual vulnerability of female slaves to their white owners. But "The Bondwoman's Narrative" is something more than just another slave narrative.

"It's a fusion of the gothic novel, the sentimental novel and the slave narrative," says Gates. "We've never seen anything like this before."

A likely explanation for the manuscript's rarity is that blacks then were discouraged from writing fiction, in large part because it wasn't helpful to the abolitionist movement.

"African-Americans were told by their cultural 'superiors' that their only access into culture was as truth-tellers," says Ann Fabian, associate professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University and author of "The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America."

"Crafts' act of writing fiction is really quite significant - she seizes power through the art of invention," Fabian says.

Self-taught, Crafts made up her own rules. But since little is known about her, it is difficult to know fact from fiction. She was apparently influenced by sentimental and gothic conventions, and even by Charles Dickens.

"She fell in love with Dickens," says Gates. "The fact that a fugitive slave could find an English template is one of the wonders of literature and humanity in general."

Malvina Harlan may also have aspired to fiction writing. While researching the Harlan papers, Przybyszewski found a two-page abstract for what she calls, with a laugh, "such a bad, wonderful, sentimental novel."

The proposal outlines a romantic novel hinging on class distinctions and nationalities in which an American gentleman falls for two women - one, an American gentlewoman; the other, an English working girl. He chooses the American.

"In a very mild way, it's a novel in favor of class hierarchies - it's so un-American," says Przybyszewski, who suspects that Malvina Harlan wrote the proposal, possibly looking for ways to make money after the justice's death left her debt-ridden.

Crafts' use of Dickens comes as no surprise to Przybyszewski. "People shape their stories to fit into their models," she says. "The same thing is clear with Malvina.

"For example, the story she tells about the night John decides he wants to join the Union army - the story of the brave wife is standard in novels and memoirs. If you look at letters, there were lots of women who were very upset at being left, but those don't fit into the model. We have to be aware that the conversation was shaped."

This shaped quality poses a potential danger for historians, but, from a literary or cultural point of view, it is priceless.

"These are documents in the history of storytelling," says Fabian. "Culturally, they are very important."


By Claudia La Rocco
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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