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In his introduction to Harriet Wilson's novel, Our Nig, Henry Louis Gates argues that the book is both a sentimental novel and an autobiography.(1) Establishing the autobiographical nature of the text is his first concern; he begins his essay by referring to the historical data--publishing records, census information, and the death certificate of Wilson's son--that helped him establish Wilson's historical identity and authorship. He supports his argument by comparing the plot details of Our Nig with the information contained in the three appendices that follow the text.
A reader guided by this interpretation of Our Nig reads it as a serious text, written by one who "preferred the pious, direct appeal to the subtle or ambiguous."(2) The image of Harriet Wilson as a desperate mother "forced to some experiment which shall aid me in maintaining myself and child without extinguishing this feeble life" hovers over Our Nig as we read, underscoring the similarities between the author's claims in the preface and the suffering of her heroine, Frado.(3) Gates claims that Wilson would have produced an inferior product had she strayed from her lived experience and attempted to write fiction:
the 'autobiographical' consistencies between the fragments of Harriet Wilson's life and the depiction of the calamities of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, would suggest that Mrs. Wilson was able to gain control over her materials more readily than her fellow black novelists of that decade precisely by adhering closely to the painful details of suffering that were part of her experience.(4)
Gates also implicitly disparages Wilson's creativity in his discussion of the ways in which her narrative compares with what Nina Baym has called the "overplot" of the sentimental fiction produced by Wilson's white female contemporaries. Although Gates credits Wilson with the creation of a new form of fiction, "the black woman's novel ... because she invented her own plot structure through which to narrate the saga of her orphaned mulatto heroine," he implies that Wilson mimicked that literature with which she was most familiar, altering it only when it did not conform to her real life experience.(5) The picture drawn of Wilson in Gates' introduction is therefore not that of a creative writer comfortably in control of her material, but instead that of a nearly illiterate woman who stumbled onto originality because her life story--the only story she was equipped to tell--did not conform entirely to contemporary literary convention.
Gates' definition of Our Nig as largely autobiographical convinces us that we must ignore indications that Wilson's meaning is not always straightforward and that textual inconsistencies or "inversions" may not be due to lack of authorial skill. Once Our Nig is perceived as a true life story, similar to the slave narratives written by Wilson's contemporaries, it becomes difficult to read the text's satiric or ironic moments as more than the angry aberrations of an unskilled writer. A detailed examination of Wilson's prose, however, suggests that large portions of Our Nig are satiric and that Wilson's indictment of antebellum Northern racism derives most of its power from that satire.
Michael Seidel writes that one of the first hints that a text may be satiric is "the claim to truth as a narrative privilege."(6) Although this is most notably true in those satires that are patently false, such as Don Quixote, Candide, or Gulliver's Travels, a satire that disguises itself as truth need not be obviously fantastical. Our Nig purports to be truthful in several ways. Its full title is 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.' Gates comments that "the boldness and cleverness in the ironic use of 'Nig' as title and pseudonym is, to say the least, impressive, standing certainly as one of the black tradition's earliest recorded usages."(7) Wilson's "pseudonym" functions to convince her readers that the author and protagonist of her tale are the same. The pseudonym also suggests that, as a true narrative, Our Nig will conform to the generic model of the slave narratives that themselves mimicked the sentimental fiction written by white women. The allegorical phrase, "Two-Story White House, North," further suggests a serious, non-satiric text because it also conforms to the generic expectations of both abolitionist literature and sentimental fiction.
In contrast, the juxtaposition of "Our Nig" and "Free Black" does not conform to such generic expectations but instead implies that the narrative concerns itself with an aberration from the status quo. This part of the title supports Wilson's satiric pseudonym, challenging beliefs in Northern equality and suggesting social depravity. As a satirist, Wilson is outraged that slavery, or its partner, indentured servitude, can exist among those who congratulate themselves on their moral superiority to Southern slaveholders. Significantly, Frado is not even legally indentured; she is bound by default as it becomes increasingly clear that her mother is never going to return for her. The Bellmonts, at whose home she is abandoned, never consider that Frado might do something besides work for them; by the time she becomes an adolescent, she knows she is compelled to remain with them until her eighteenth birthday.
Wilson's preface …