Briefly Noted Book Reviews | The New Yorker

Briefly Noted Book Reviews | The New Yorker

The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts, by Gregg Hecimovich (Ecco). In 2002, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published an annotated edition of “The Bondswoman’s Narrative,” a novel thought to be the first written by an enslaved Black woman. Its author was unknown until Hecimovich, a scholar of Victorian literature, traced the manuscript to Hannah Crafts, a mixed-race captive who was born in 1826. Like her novel’s protagonist, Crafts was likely the offspring of rape, her first captor having been her biological father. As she was passed from one household to the next, she was taught to read and exposed to popular literature; her novel would eventually draw on Dickens’s “Bleak House.” Alongside Crafts’s story, Hecimovich recounts the painstaking process of his research, which included forensic analysis of paper and ink and the creative use of incomplete archives.

American Visions, by Edward L. Ayers (Norton). This nimble history surveys the “visions” that Americans fashioned for the nation taking shape before them in the “lurching” period of 1800 to 1860. These ideals were expressed through literature, visual art, popular songs, political slogans, religious doctrines, and folk heroes (such as Johnny Appleseed, who, Ayers argues, represented “the American frontier cleansed of dispossession and despoliation”). Ayers anchors his study with familiar figures, but he pays particular attention to lesser-known Black abolitionists and Native Americans. The result is a dynamic portrait of a country in transition.

Read our reviews of the year’s notable new fiction and nonfiction.

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