March 22nd, 2011

_Our Nig_, Harriet E. Wilson

This was a book group selection for this month. We had the discussion today.

First and foremost: get the Penguin edition! Apparently absolutely no one in the group who had editions with the intro by Gates were able to make it through that intro, and it really damaged their ability to make progress on the book itself. The chronologies in the Penguin edition are also quite complete compared to some of the earlier versions, also.

_Our Nig_ is an autobiographical novel, apparently the first published by an African American in the US. Set, stunningly, in Milford (a town next to the one I refer to as Mayberry, NH) and environs, it tells the story of the daughter of a white, Irish woman who bears a child out of wedlock. That child dies, but her reputation is damaged and she has a lot of difficulty supporting herself, particularly as the New England economy evolves in ways that make it harder and harder for her to earn any kind of wage. She is pitied by a black man and they have two children, one of whom is the narrator of this tale, a stand-in for Adams/Wilson herself.

At age 6, the family's situation is again dire. The father has died and the mother is living with another black man. He suggests they leave Frado with a white family which is chronically unable to retain servants because the mother in the house is abusive (really abusive, even by the standards of the time). They have enough money to be able to hire help, and the father's beliefs are known to be abolitionist. Frado is left with them and the understanding seems to be that she will live with them until she is 18, working in exchange for a place to live and food to eat.

While a lot of the popular fiction of the time focused on "happy" families, a decent amount of stories (short and novel length) depicted bad treatment of "help" by the families they were hired by. This story can be read as a combination of that tale, a "slave narrative", and a quite modern tale of my-abusive-childhood. The book was rediscovered by Gates in the early 1980s and there has been quite a lot of work done to understand how much of it really was autobiographical (a lot, perhaps all), and also to try to understand the author's life after the book was published.

Chronic illness is not only a trope of fiction, but also of the way women managed competing demands in the 19th century (who am I kidding? If you knew my eldest sister and my mother, you'd understand it's _still_ a way women manage competing demands today, at least in circles with the same kind of hierarchical, authoritarian structure as the one that trapped the author as a child). In a world in which fuel and water must be fetched from out-of-doors to indoors -- and that was only the beginning of hard labors in the home -- women were genuinely destroyed by the basic needs of self-care and care of children. Women who figured out ways to reduce those demands were the women who survived, and being too sick to work (but not actually sick enough to really die) was a classic of the time. A fair number of commentators went on and on about how the fairer sex were too weak to do much of anything except insist that other women (generally Irish) do all the work they couldn't do -- because they were women. When these commentators were men who spent their time with their books, well, it's hard to know what precisely to do with that, but smacking the man around a bit sure would seem tempting.

The Beechers helped create a world in which women with means and status relinquished their claims to participation in the public world in exchange for unquestioned authority in the home. Domestic fiction did all kinds of things in an effort to make acquiring that home and that power seem _really_ desirable, and not just an ungodly amount of thankless work that would probably kill you, in childbirth or after.

Into this landscape of fiction (which I'm pretty sure Wilson encountered, even if only on loan from a subscription library) comes _Our Nig_. The desirable woman's role -- running the household -- is filled by a poisonous creature who destroys everyone in her path (and emasculates all the men); the only way to deal with her successfully is to avoid her -- or match her violence in turn. Other women's roles are filled as well: the daughter who is an invalid, yet nevertheless has multiple suitors; the spinster sister of the husband who has her own part of the family home inherited from their parents, but her scope is severely limited by her brother's wife. Any reader at the time must surely have felt each blow to the shining hearth: this thing that I so desire will turn out to be ashes if I ever get near it.

So, too, freedom. While Frado is born free, she is abandoned to a heartless home. By the time she ages out of servitude, her health is broken and she is forced repeatedly to rely upon the town to pay someone to care for her. When she tries to work, she is accused of faking her illness. She is also in fear of being kidnapped and taken south as a "fugitive slave". Wilson presents freedom in the North as being as bad as legal bondage.

It's hard to know, now, who Wilson might have expected to read and enjoy her book, so completely does she eviscerate Ideal Types for women and for men, for whites and for blacks. But then, maybe that's not why she wrote it. She certainly did not publish anything else, and she lived plenty of years in which to do so. She was an entrepreneur, selling hair products, and a Spiritualist who preached to large crowds on some occasions. Her one son died, and she worked with a Spiritualist "sunday school" for children.

In a lot of ways, the character of Frado reminded me enormously of one of my sisters, and some other women I have known over the course of my life. She is often chaotic, and her life is not a linear one. She has good years and bad ones. She has unexpected successes and chronic depression and self-hatred. She is gloriously discontent with her lot, and intent on the validation of others and their sympathy in her suffering. And she has a wicked sense of humor and the inclination to act on it. If she has to deprecate how bad some others have it, well, so be it. It is a stance which refuses to just "suck it up and deal". Tactically -- even strategically -- it is not very effective (except when it works).

Nevertheless, I quite adored Frado, and Harriet E. Wilson. I don't know who else might, but I hope other people try this book and have the compassion to see that Frado, in fiction, and Wilson, In Real Life, were doing the best they could with who they were and what they had, and to the extent they disappoint and were disappointed, it is through no fault of their own -- but their successes and victories were all their own and very well-deserved. It is a measure of the justice and benevolence of a society when the Frados and Wilsons have happy lives, and a sign that further change is needed when they are treated instead with cruelty.