Named a Most Anticipated Title by: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post!
A groundbreaking study of the first Black female novelist and her life as an enslaved woman, from the biographer who solved the mystery of her identity, with a forward by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
In 1857, a woman escaped enslavement on a North Carolina plantation and fled to a farm in New York. In hiding, she worked on a manuscript that would make her famous long after her death. The novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, was first published in 2002 to great acclaim, but the author’s identity remained unknown. Over a decade later, Professor Gregg Hecimovich unraveled the mystery of the author’s name and, in The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts, he finally tells her story.
In this remarkable biography, Hecimovich identifies the novelist as Hannah Bond “Crafts.” She was not only the first known Black woman to compose a novel but also an extraordinarily gifted artist who honed her literary skills in direct opposition to a system designed to deny her every measure of humanity. After escaping to New York, the author forged a new identity—as Hannah Crafts—to make sense of a life fractured by slavery.
Hecimovich establishes the case for authorship of The Bondwoman’s Narrative by examining the lives of Hannah Crafts’s friends and contemporaries, including the five enslaved women whose experiences form part of her narrative. By drawing on the lives of those she knew in slavery, Crafts summoned into her fiction people otherwise stolen from history.
At once a detective story, a literary chase, and a cultural history, The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts discovers a tale of love, friendship, betrayal, and violence set against the backdrop of America’s slide into Civil War.
About the Author
Gregg Hecimovich is a Hutchins Family Fellow at Harvard University and professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He received his PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and elsewhere. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and two children.
"Furman University English professor Hecimovich (Puzzling the Reader) delivers a captivating biography of Hannah Crafts. Part literary detective story, part suspenseful escape narrative, this impressive account ties together its many disparate threads into a riveting whole. It’s a must-read." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"An absorbing work of historical and literary excavation." — Kirkus Reviews
“The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts may be one of the most important case studies ever written in how to search for and find an unknown author from clues she left in her fiction and from fleeting traces of her in family archives and memories. For two decades after Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discovered The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Gregg Hecimovich pieced together historical fact and fictionalized versions to situate Hannah Crafts in a particular family of enslavers. Gregg's dramatic findings verifying Gates’s discovery are clarifying, thrilling, and provocative, demanding we return to The Bondwoman’s Narrative anew.”
— Hollis Robbins, author of Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition
“Decades of sleuthing in the archives yielded the astonishing finds that lie behind The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts, Gregg Hecimovich’s spellbinding new biography. At once a mystery, a thriller, and an elegy, this book is a riveting reconstruction of the life—and literary influences--of the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative (1858), the first novel written by a Black woman in the United States.”
— Jill Lepore, author of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
“Interspersed with photos, descriptions of pertinent historical events, drawings, and digitized archival documents, this excellent biography will appeal to many readers.” — Library Journal (starred review)
“Riveting . . . . The resulting story is an inspired amalgam of genres — part thriller, part mystery and part biography. What emerges is a tale of a woman who was determined to be the protagonist of her story, regardless of what her society had in store for her. . . . [B]ooks like Hecimovich’s are a vital resource for readers who wish to engage with themselves and the wider world.” — Tope Folarin, Washington Post