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|Posted October 29, 2006|
|A Slave Story Is Rediscovered, and a Dispute Begins|
By DINITIA SMITH
It reads like a typical Victorian melodrama: an impoverished young woman, strangely, wildly and darkly beautiful, becomes a governess in a wealthy household, and, behold, a French count falls for her and wants to sweep her away.
But theres a crucial difference: It is race-torn America; the heroine is mulatto; the book, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, is believed by some scholars to be the first novel ever published by an African-American woman.
Julia C. Collins, a free black woman who lived in Williamsport, Pa., serialized The Curse of Caste in 1865 in The Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This month it is being published for the first time in book form by Oxford University Press.
But the republication has stirred a dispute between its editors William L. Andrews, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University and the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who says that The Curse of Caste is not, as stated on the jacket, the first novel by an African-American woman.
Mr. Gates says that honor belongs to Our Nig (1859), by Harriet E. Wilson, which he himself brought to light in 1982.
|The first novel by an African-American woman? Maybe.|
Moreover, the book jacket of The Curse of Caste proclaims that it has been rediscovered. Mr. Gates said that he published it in microfiche form in 1989 as part of The Black Periodical Fiction Project. At Mr. Gatess request, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Kachun added a footnote to the book acknowledging this.
(In 2001, Mr. Gates also announced the discovery of The Bondwomans Narrative, written sometime before the Civil War and said to be by a former slave, Hannah Crafts, though Ms. Craftss identity has never been established. The first known novel by any African-American is Clotel: or, The Presidents Daughter, by William Wells Brown, in 1853.)
The dispute between the scholars centers on competing definitions of what constitutes a novel.
The editors of The Curse of Caste say that Our Nig is actually a novelized autobiography, and that The Curse of Caste is the first completely imagined work by an African-American woman. Mr. Gates counters that many first novels, especially, are autobiographical fictions.
Whatever the case, The Curse of Caste provides insights into contemporary attitudes about black womens sexuality and miscegenation. It is a sentimental work, with four chapters missing.
The heroine, Claire Neville, does not know that her mother was a slave. Her father, Richard Tracy, was the son of Louisiana slave owners. A man of dark, eloquent eyes, he fell in love with Claires mother, Lina, infuriating his father. In a rage, the father shoots and wounds Richard, who flees to France. Lina dies, leaving Richard unaware of his baby daughters existence.
Fate, meanwhile, brings the adult Claire to the Tracys plantation as a governess. Her resemblance to the missing Richard becomes apparent, and the French count, Sayvord, falls in love with her.
But before the novel was finished, a notice in The Recorder said that Ms. Collins had died of consumption, leaving her bereaved husband and motherless children.
Mr. Kachun said he found the novel in the newspapers archives while researching Emancipation celebrations. He also discovered Ms. Collinss essays on such themes as Mental Improvement and Intelligent Women, which are reprinted in the book.
The editors have tried to piece together Ms. Collinss life story from the shards of available evidence. The Recorder states that she was a teacher. It is not known if she had been a slave. She was clearly well read; the novel contains references to classical antiquity and Tennyson.
By modern standards, the novel has little literary merit.
But, Mr. Kachun said, a lot of novels that were popular at the time would not stand up today.
The novel treads gingerly around issues of sexuality. The principal black women are essentially asexual. Claire is suddenly born on her mothers deathbed, without warning that Lina was even pregnant.
It was really dangerous for a black woman writer at this time to talk about passion and desire, Mr. Andrews said. There was a prejudice that black women were not faithful, not true to their marriage vows, and that marriage wasnt prized by black people.
The book differs from most novels of the period about mixed-race romance in that Lina and Richard are allowed to marry and to be briefly, blissfully happy in the United States. Typically, Mr. Andrews said, white writers and black writers who wrote about racial mixing pack them off to Italy or France.
Ms. Collins, he said, is taking the bold step of saying black women should be able to marry whomever they want.
Toward the end, Sayvord discovers Claires race and equivocates about marrying her. I must think of this, he says. It is best to accustom ones self to look unpleasant facts steadily in the face.
Because there is no final chapter, Mr. Andrews has composed two alternate endings The Happy Ending and The Tragic Ending based on clues in the text. In both, Claire is reunited with her father and Sayvord asks her to marry him, but in the tragic version she is killed by a rival before the wedding.
The fact is, Mr. Kachun said, she is exploring what could be a happy ending, an empowering ending, in which marriage and civility are things that African-American women can aspire to.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company Privacy. Reprinted from The New York Times, TheArts, of Saturday, October 28, 2006.
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