Harriet Wilson, Our Nig and Henry Kirke White’s Poetry

R. J. Ellis

University of Chichester

Harriet Wilson, the daughter of a white female and an African American man in the Northern United States, in her heavily autobiographical 1859 prose work,[1] disconcertingly entitled Our Nig,[2] chose to open each of her chapters with a quotation taken from another work, most usually a poem.[3] Three of these epigraphs (the headings to chapters seven, eight and nine), consist of extracts from poetry by Henry Kirke White. No other writer featured more than once in Our Nig.

White might not seem at first blush to be an obvious choice. But then it has to said that other of her epigraphs, taken from the likes of Byron, Shelley and Eliza Cook, were not so obvious either, given that Wilson enjoyed only a very rudimentary education, granted begrudgingly and briefly by the white woman, a farmer’s wife, for whom Wilson worked as a species of indentured child servant after being abandoned by her mother (Wilson lived in New Hampshire, which required children to be schooled). Even more disconcertingly, after reaching the age of 18, and so completing her indenture, Wilson was reduced to poverty, leading her to rely upon (informal) charitable assistance and more than one period in the workhouse in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire. Furthermore, Wilson was cruelly abused and overworked by the farmer’s wife, being require to labour both as a domestic servant and as a farm worker in the fields, which resulted in her debilitation. None of this would suggest that within a few years Wilson would be referencing a small panoply of Romantic poets in an extended prose work.

However, Wilson was reduced to a series of long convalescences after her vicious maltreatment, and this must have been at least once in the home of a patron with a not insignificantly sized library (considering the period, and her location in small rural New Hampshire ‘towns’ – that is to say, villages). Speculatively, it might be suggested she at this time read the New York 1855 Appleton edition of The Poetical and Prose Works of Henry Kirke White with Life by Robert Southey, the edition I have chosen to refer to (though other similar printings of this work existed which had been released at about this time, including several in the USA, all featuring Southey’s introduction). So, this was at a time when she was just starting out, or about to start out on her literary effort (though unlike White, she would not progress further than this first and only work).

It is a testimony to White’s (relative) popularity at this time that Wilson encountered and drew upon White in this way, as she decided to include epigraphs, assumedly to secure more cultural authority and contingent, vicarious cultural capital for her work (though in fact it would be privately printed, and, apparently, sold door to door by Wilson herself).

In this respect, Shelley and Byron were more prominent, if also more controversial. But it is not difficult to understand why Wilson was particularly attracted to White’s particular brand of plangent, self-dramatising melancholy (over and above his not insignificant popularity).

At the most obvious level, Wilson’s sad and circumscribed life meant that, whilst she carefully outlined her own somewhat unsuccessful resistances to her oppression, she was also, as her book’s ending testifies, given to melancholic outbursts. These carried more than a trace of rhetorically redolent solace, one that that her reading of White probably accentuated. But White offered other allures, to which Southey’s Life (in almost all editions of White) drew her attention. Like White, Wilson experienced substantial (and, it must be added, much greater) hardships as a child and adolescent. Like White, Wilson had been broadly speaking, self-educated. Like White, Wilson found support in the Church (in her case the Congregational Church in Milford) – though this varied depending on the degree of commitment by successive clergymen to the anti-slavery cause. Like White, Wilson’s long experience of grinding poverty undermined her health for a long period (though she survived where he eventually did not). It is therefore understandable that Wilson would have felt fellow feelings with White. I must firmly emphasise here that I of course recognise the wide disparities also involved, the consequence of differences in racial identity, sexual identity and gender.

Though the selections from White could easily be replaced with others, just as or even more apposite, they make clear what I mean:

Chapter Seven’s epigraph:

What are our joys, but dreams? And what our hopes But goodly shadows in the summer cloud?[4]

Chapter Eight’s epigraph:

Other cares engross me, and my tired soul, with emulative haste, Looks to its God[5]

Chapter Nine’s epigraph:

We have now But a small portion of what men call time, To hold commune.[6]

Each of these quotations is (very slightly) inaccurate, but the epigraph to Chapter Eight is worth pausing over as the lines from White’s poem placed there are immediately preceded by a particularly apposite sentiment:

No more of Hope; the wanton vagrant Hope! I abjure all.

Wilson was in a precarious, probably near-hopeless state at this time, and White’s plaints would have resonated. At the time Wilson was including these melancholic extracts from poems by White in her work, she was experiencing a time of substantial turmoil whilst still weakened by her long experiences as an indentured and badly abused servant. It is difficult to disentangle what her station was as she wrote Our Nig. The record is not completely clear (so often the case with minority groups in the USA at the time). However, it seems she was trying to develop a business venture involving a hair restorative product – a venture which soon collapsed (perhaps after some initial success), whilst her very young son by a relationship that ended in her husband deserting her was in such dire straits he ended up, like his mother before him, in Milford’s and Hillsborough County’s pauper care institutions (and he was soon to die in the poor house, of inanition). So we can certainly say that ‘Other cares’ – many others – did indeed ‘engross’ Wilson as she wrote Our Nig, and that these ignited her response to White’s plaints, in a spirit of fellow feeling, and in despite of his recurrent lashings of self-indulgent melancholia. All this, though, is more a question of attraction than influence.

It should also be recalled, however, that Wilson was quite probably influenced by the paratextual surrounds to White’s poems. Where Southey notes that White ‘request[s]’ that his writing be read with ‘indulgence’ (p. 12) Wilson requests that her ‘humble position and frank confessions of error’ will ‘shield’ her ‘from severe criticism’ (p. 3 of the facsimile) – though, of course, this plaint was quite conventional. Southey’s ‘Life’ draws attention to White’s youthfulness (p. 12), his self-tuition (p. 2), his impecunity and his pursuit of knowledge under this handicap (pp. 12, 30) and his ‘shattered health’ (p. 33). Such framing, chiming substantially with key features of Wilson’s own life, would have led Wilson to read White with sympathetic attention, and value his expressions, however hackneyed at times, of melancholic reflection upon life. She would have gained confidence from his history, as well as from the (even more apposite) slave narratives she very probably encountered in her anti-slavery patrons’ libraries, as she set out upon the writing of her heavily autobiographical work. She would have derived some extra confidence in undertaking this literary endeavour, now recognised as a much neglected landmark in the development of African American writing..

[1] There is considerable debate about whether this work should be regarded as a species of autobiography, or a heavily autobiographical novel-length piece of fiction. It was published under a pseudonym, ‘Our Nig’, though the Boston-issued copyright assigns the work to Harriet E. Wilson. As the former, it can be regarded as an unusual but compelling Northern US ‘slave narrative’, as it were. As the latter it would stand as one of the earliest, or the earliest novel written by an African American, and as one the earliest, or the earliest working-class novel. For the record, I regard it as a novel posing, in a complex way, as pastiche autobiography to dramatise its (at times satiric) revelation of how the US North countenanced social arrangements reducing many African Americans to species of wage slavery and (often unpaid) indentured servitude at the very time when anti-slavery and abolitionist arguments were reaching fever pitch in the North. For an opposing view, see Gabrielle Foreman’s and Reginald Pitts’ edition of this work, published by Penguin in 2008. My position, closely aligned with that of Henry Louis Gates Jr, is laid out in our joint edition, published by Vintage Books, in 2011. References to Wilson’s work use this edition, which reproduces the 1859 text as a facsimile.

[2] Though also carrying the long subtitle, or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House North, Showing that Slavery’s Shadow Falls Even There, a complex allusive refence to the anti-slavery and abolitionist controversies racking the USA in 1859. The allusion to the Presidential White House is deliberate and poiinted.

[3] Amongst the writers quoted in these chapter epigraphs/headings were Shelley, Byron, Thomas Moore, Martin Farquhar Tupper and Eliza Cook.

[4] From Henry Kirke White, ‘Time: a Poem’, The Poetical and Prose Works of Henry Kirke White with Life by Robert Southey (New York: Appleton, 1855), p. 354.

[5] From Henry Kirke White, ‘Written in the Prospect of Death’, The Poetical and Prose Works of Henry Kirke White with Life by Robert Southey, p. 305.

[6] From Henry Kirke White, ‘Written in the Prospect of Death’, The Poetical and Prose Works of Henry Kirke White with Life by Robert Southey, p. 305.