Harriet E. Wilson

Harriet E. Wilson (born Harriet E. Adams, March 15, 1825 – June 28, 1900) was an African-American writer.

Born free in New Hampshire, Harriet was the daughter of a woman of Irish ancestry and a man of mixed African and Indian ancestry. Harriet’s father died when she was about three years old, and, when she was about six, her mother abandoned her at the house of a middle-class farmer.

As an orphan, Harriet was bound to the family by the law, as an indentured servant, as a way of getting boarding and education in exchange for her labour. However, in reality, Harriet worked as a slave for the family, and was often physically and mentally abused. After the end of her indenture, at the age of 18, she worked as a house servant and a seamstress in households in New Hampshire.

Harriet married Thomas Wilson, on October 6, 1851. A few months after the marriage, she published a poem called “Fading Away” in the periodical The Farmer’s Cabinet, on December 6th, 1851:

Like the glimmering spark from the meteor’s fire,
Like the gay humming insects who fall and expire,
We’re fading away. Fading away.”

Thomas travelled around New England, lecturing in churches and town squares, about his life as an escaped slave. As it turned out, he had never been a slave and had created the story to gain support from abolitionists. Soon after the marriage, he abandoned her, and went to sea.

Harriet was pregnant, and was sent to live in a county poorhouse, where her son, George Mason Wilson, was born, on June 15, 1852. Her husband died soon after, serving as a sailor. Unable to make enough money to provide for her son’s care, Harriet placed him on the county poorhouse, and moved to Boston, in 1855, hoping to find work.

While in Boston, Harriet wrote a novel to raise money to help care for her son. Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously in Boston, on September 5, 1859, by George C. Rand and Avery. The novel was not well received at the time of its publication and was soon forgotten. It was discovered in 1982, by the scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Harriet Wilson is now considered the first African American woman to publish a novel in the United States.

Harriet’s son died at the age of seven on February 16, 1860. On September 29, 1870, she married again, to an apothecary, John Gallatin Robinson, in Boston. Robinson was born in Canada of English and German ancestry, and was nearly 18 years younger than Wilson. They separated in 1877.

From the late 1860’s to the late 1890’s, Harriet was active as a lecturer in the local Spiritualist community in Boston, where she became known as “the coloured medium.” During this time, she worked as a housekeeper in a boarding house. According to newspaper reports of the time, she also lectured on labour reform and children’s education, and worked as a Spiritualist nurse and healer.

According to her death certificate, Hattie E. Wilson died of “inanition” on June 28, 1900.


About her, her book, and slave narrative in general

  • Honey, Hush: An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, by Daryl Cumber Dance (1998)
  • “‘This Attempt of Their Sister’: Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig from Printer to Readers”, by Eric Gardner, The New England Quarterly, 66.2 (1993), pp. 226–246.
  • Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, by Ann Allen Shockley (1989)
  • Harriet Wilson’s New England: Race, Writing, and Region, ed. JerriAnne Boggis (2007)
  • “Parallel Discursive Universes: Fictions of the Self in Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig”, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1987), pp. 125-163.
  • Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, ed. Yolanda Williams Page (2007)
  • Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig: A Cultural Biography of a ‘‘Two-Story’’ African Novel, by R. J. Ellis (2003)
  • ‘‘Economics of Identity: Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig’, by John Ernest, PMLA 109 (1994), pp. 424–438.
  • Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin (1990)
  • We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, by Dorothy Sterling (1984)
  • ‘‘Dwelling in the House of Oppression: The Spatial, Racial, and Textual Dynamics of Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig’, by Lois Leveen, African American Review4 (2001), pp. 561–580.
  • Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative, by Valerie Smith (1987)
  • ‘‘Excavating Genre in Our Nig’’, by Julia Stern, American Literature3 (1995), pp. 439–466.
  • “Our Nig and the She-Devil: New Information about Harriet Wilson and the ‘Bellmont’ Family”, by Barbara A. White, American Literature1 (1993), pp. 19–52.
  • The Tradition of Women’s Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present, by Estelle C. Jelinek (1986)
  • “Autogynography: Is the Subject Different?”, by Donna C. Stanton, in The Female Autograph: Theory and Practice of Autobiography from the Tenth to the Twentieth Century, ed. Donna C. Stanton (1987), pp. 3-20.
  • The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, by Shari Benstock (1988)
  • Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Barbara Welter (1976)
  • Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870, by Nina Baym (1978)
  • Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, by Gerda Lerner (1973)
  • Witnessing Slavery: The Development of the Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives, by Frances Smith Foster (1979)
  • Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition, by Joanne M. Braxton (1989)
  • Female Subjects in Black and White Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen (1997)
  • Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960, by Mary Helen Washington (1987)
  • “In Search of the Black Female Self: African-American Women’s Autobiographies and Ethnicity”, Regina Blackburn, in Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle C. Jelinek (1980), pp. 133- 148.
  • Studies in Black American Literature: Black American Prose Theory, ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot (1983)
  • The Slave’s Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1985)
  • The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory, ed. John Sekora and Darwin T. Turner (1982)
  • Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Hortense Spillers and Marjorie Pryse (1985)
  • Classic African American Women’s Narratives, ed. William L. Andrews (2003)
  • Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, by Hazel Carby (1987)
  • The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers, ed. Joyce W. Warren (1993)
  • Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, by Jeanne Campbell Reesman (2011)
  • The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Shirley Samuels (1992)

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