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When DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. was on medical leave last summer, he found himself with plenty of spare time on his hands—and a casual past-time that turned up a major historical find.
At home recovering from hip replacement surgery, Gates filled long hours by reading, among other things, the antique auction catalogs that arrived in his mail.
One catalog entry particularly caught his eye: A manuscript entitled “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” a fictional novel purportedly handwritten in the 1850s by an escaped female slave named Hannah Crafts.
Although the legitimacy of the document’s origin was not verified, Gates did not hesitate to go after it.
“Why claim to be black in 1855 when you’re not? As soon as I saw it in the catalog,” he said in an interview yesterday, “I knew the odds were with me. ”
Gates’s acquisition of the manuscript has stirred wide interest in the work even though at the time of the auction, few others believed the document was really written by an escaped slave.
Gates, unable to travel at the time, bid through a friend. He acquired the work for $8,500 plus commission, for a total of $9,775—less than the auction’s floor price of $10,000 because there were no other bidders.
“I went in there prepared to pay whatever it took,” Gates said. But he was worried enough about a bidding war that he sought additional funding from publishing companies, he said. “One letter from Frederick Douglass at the same auction sold for $37,000.”
According to Gates, the publishing houses declined to support his efforts financially for the same reason that he faced no bidding opposition: Nobody had verified the authenticity of the work. The problem, however, lay in the fact that he could not prove the manuscript was legitimate until after he had purchased it.
After the acquisition, Gates began the arduous process of authenticating the manuscript. He explained that his verification process entailed “lining up” the events, times and places in the text and comparing them to known historical facts. If the purported origin of the text is genuine, the textual and factual details “will look like mirror images,” he said.
With the assistance of librarians at the Library of Congress and the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among others, Gates spearheaded an extensive research effort. Confined to his house, Gates spent much of his time sifting through censuses, attempting to establish the actual existence of characters within the novel.
“The most important thing was finding all those people, because that meant it was real,” Gates said. When he found one of the character’s names in a census, Gates said he was “so excited. I had tears in my eyes.”
Despite hitting many dead ends along the way, Gates eventually succeeded in authenticating the origin of the work. And now, many others are beginning to recognize the significance of Gates’s acquisition.
David B. Davis, a professor at Yale and a historian of slavery, told The New York Times, “We have relatively few authentic slave narratives, and certainly a novel written by a black woman and former slave is almost sensational.”
Gates has contracted to have the novel published by Warner Books next April.
Nina Baym, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a women’s literature scholar, called “The Bondwoman’s Narrative” a “great find.”
“It’s a very good read. We have a very talented writer, and a very interesting novel,” she said. “I’m quite excited about it.”
Gates says he has not yet decided where the original copy of the manuscript will eventually find a home.
“It’s now been appraised at an astonishing value, and I’ve been approached by two libraries here at Harvard,” he said. “I have definitely decided to donate it.”
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