Harriet E. Wilson (March 15, 1825 - June 28, 1900) is traditionally considered the first female African-American novelist as well as the first African American of any gender to publish a novel on the North American continent.
Wilson's autobiographical novel 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 By “Our Nig” (ISBN 1-4000-3120-6) was published in 1859. Our Nig illustrates the injustice of the indentured servitude system of the antebellum northern United States. The novel fell into obscurity soon after its publication, and only achieved national attention when it was rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982.
In 2006, William L. Andrews, an English literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University, brought to light Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865). Maintaining that Our Nig is more autobiography than fiction, they argue that The Curse of Caste is the first fully fictional novel by an African-American to be published in the U.S.. The first known novel by an African American is William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, originally published in the U.K.
Harriet E. "Hattie" Adams Wilson was born in Milford, New Hampshire, the daughter of an African American "hooper of barrels", Joshua Green, and Margaret Ann (or Adams) Smith, a washerwoman of Irish extraction. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother abandoned her at the farm of Nehemiah Hayward, Jr., a well-to-do Milford farmer.
Documentary research undertaken by P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts and incorporated in the latest (2004) edition of "Our Nig" leads to the conclusion that the Hayward family were the same as the "Bellmont" family depicted in "Our Nig" as the family who held the young "Frado" in indentured servitude, abusing her physically and mentally from the age of six to eighteen.
After the end of her indenture, Hattie Adams (as she was then known), worked as a house servant and a seamstress in households in southern New Hampshire and in central and western Massachusetts as her health permitted, until she married Thomas Wilson in Milford on October 6, 1851. Thomas Wilson had been traveling around New England giving lectures based on his life as a (supposed) escaped slave, when he met Hattie Adams. Although he continued to periodically lecture in churches and town squares, he soon confided to her that he was never in bondage ("he had never seen the South") and that his "illiterate harangues were humbugs for hungry abolitionists", as found on page 68 of "Our Nig".
However, he soon abandoned her after they married. Pregnant and ill, Harriet Wilson was sent to the Hillsborough County Poor Farm in Goffstown, New Hampshire, where her only son, George Mason Wilson, was born. His probable birth date was June 15, 1852. Soon after George's birth, Thomas Wilson reappeared in her life and took her and her son away from the Poor Farm. Thomas Wilson returned to sea and died soon after and Harriet Wilson returned her son to the care of the Poor Farm. She then moved to Boston, Massachusetts to seek a living for herself and her son.
While in Boston, Harriet Wilson wrote Our Nig. On August 18, 1859, she copyrighted it, and a copy of the novel was deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. On September 5, 1859, the novel was published by George C. Rand and Avery, a publishing firm in Boston.
On February 16, 1860, her son, George Mason Wilson, died in Milford, at the age of seven at the Poor Farm. In 1863, Harriet Wilson appears on the "Report of the Overseers of the Poor" for the town of Milford.
After 1863, Harriet Wilson's whereabouts are unknown until 1867, where she is listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is known in Spiritualist circles as "the colored medium."
On September 29, 1870, Harriet Wilson married John Gallatin Robinson in Boston, Massachusetts.
From 1870-1897, Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson is listed in the Banner of Light as a trance reader and lecturer.
On June 28, 1900, "Hattie E. Wilson" died in the Quincy Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts. She is buried in the Cobb family plot in that town's Mount Wollaston Cemetery. Her plot number is listed as 1337, "old section."
The Harriet Wilson Project of Milford, the group largely responsible for uncovering Harriet Wilson's history after 1863, has raised funds to place the Harriet E. Wilson Memorial Statue in the town's Bicentennial Park. It was unveiled November 4, 2006 .
- African American literature
- ^ Smith, Dinitia. The New York Times (Oct. 28, 2006): "A Slave Story Is Rediscovered, and a Dispute Begins" (p. B7); Birkerts, Sven. The New York Times (Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006): "Emancipation Days" (The New York Times Book Review)
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books, 1989. ISBN 0-452-00981-2
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Harriet E. Wilson
- The Harriet Wilson Project
- An article at Houghton Millfin college
- An article from the African American World web site
- "Our Nig" in electronic edition from University of Virginia Library
- Works by Harriet E. Wilson at Project Gutenberg