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.
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, has uncovered previously unknown details about Bond’s life that have shed light on how the novel was possibly written.
Hecimovich, 44, said that he has verified the writer’s identity through wills, diaries, handwritten almanacs and public records. He intends to publish his full findings in a book, tentatively titled “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts.”
His work has been reviewed by several scholars who vouch for its authenticity, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation’s pre-eminent scholars of African-American history. Gates bought the obscure manuscript at auction in 2001.
“Words cannot express how meaningful this is to African-American literary studies,” he said in an interview. “It revolutionizes our understanding of the canon of black women’s literature.”
The book, whose language borrows from 19th-century Gothic novels, traces the story of its narrator, who endures life as a slave on a North Carolina plantation and, aided by her light complexion, successfully escapes to the North.
Hollis Robbins, the chairwoman of the department of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, called it a “tremendous” finding. “I’m totally convinced,” she said, “to the extent that anything historical can be documented without an iPhone picture of her writing the novel.”