Cynthia J. Davis
There is a growing myth surrounding Harriet Wilson that goes something like this: No one knew of either her or her only novel's existence until Henry Louis Gates, Jr., resuscitated them in 1983. It was only then that Wilson was restored to her rightful place as the author of the first novel published by a black person in the United States and as one of the first two black women to publish a novel in English. And yet, while the information about "firsts" is correct, reports of Wilson's obscurity have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, Wilson's novel achieved a certain legendary status among rare booksellers over the years and even scored a mention in Herbert Ross Brown seminal The Sentimental Novel in America ( 1940).
It isn't true, then, that Wilson was lost to history until Gates performed his heroic rescue effort; rather, what is true is that what was known about her was historically inaccurate. Until the sleuthing efforts of Gates and his researchers proved otherwise, many critics and collectors assumed that the author of Our Nig was a white male. The fact that the narrative's title page refers to its author only as "Our Nig" no doubt added to the confusion about authorial identity.
Of course, as Gates and subsequent scholars have demonstrated, Harriet Wilson was actually a black female. There is little else about Wilson, however, of which we can be certain. It is possible, as Gates contends in his introduction to the 1983 edition of the novel, that Harriet E. Adams was born in 1807 or 1808, if the age of fifty-two given on the 1860 Boston federal census is correct. However, it is also possible that she was born in 1827 or 1828, if the age of twenty- two recorded on the 1850 New Hampshire federal census is accurate ( Gates xiv). To add to the confusion, these separate census reports also contradict each