Henry Louis Gates Jr. was wandering through a rare bookshop in New York City four decades ago when he spied an unusual-looking volume published in 1859. That discovery would change the history of African American literature.
The book is subtitled “Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a two-story white house, North,” and its main title is a racial epithet. Eager to discover the identity of the author, who is not named in the book, Gates scoured archives and historical records. He determined the writer was Harriet E. Wilson, who was born a free Black woman in Milford, N.H., but spent most of her early life as an indentured servant. Gates republished the work with his findings in 1983 and established that Wilson’s book was the first novel published by an African American in the United States.
Now, with help from Gates, Harvard’s Houghton Library has acquired its own first edition of the work, containing what may be a signature of the author herself.
“As far as I’m concerned, any first edition” of the landmark novel “is very valuable,” said Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. “And I want to acquire as many as I can. And this certainly is the most unusual one that I have ever seen because it has that name there.”
The saga began late last year when an antique dealer in New Hampshire found what appeared to be an early version of the novel deep in an old box of books. The dealer’s first email was to Gates. “I couldn’t believe it when he said he had a signed copy,” said Gates. “No one has found a signed copy before. And so I of course responded immediately and said I wanted to see it.” The dealer sent pictures of the book to Gates, who forwarded them to Leslie Morris, Gore Vidal Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton. Morris immediately got to sleuthing.