The earliest known prison memoir by an African-American writer is drawing lots of attention

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tags: Black History, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict



"Firsts" in African-American literary history have captured public attention in recent years. In 2002, when scholars identified an unpublished manuscript called The Bondwoman’s Narrative as the first novel written by an African-American woman (later identified as Hannah Bond, writing under the pseudonym Hannah Crafts), it became a best seller. A few years later, The Curse of Caste, a serialized tale originally published in 1865 by Julia C. Collins, was presented as a rival "first," in part because Bondwoman was too autobiographical to count as fiction. These stories of discovery cast the scholar as an explorer of the wilderness of the past, promising to bring back firsthand accounts of how "race" was made into what we know today, and how the earliest black writers tried to unmake those meanings by wielding the pen.

Significant attention has now attended the recovery of a manuscript detailing the life of Austin Reed, a young black man from Rochester, N.Y., who bounced in and out of a juvenile reformatory before passing most of his adult years in prison. Caleb Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Yale University, authenticated it as "the earliest known prison memoir by an African-American writer" — written in 1858, while the author was held at Auburn State Prison.

In the foreword of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict,Smith’s colleagues David W. Blight and Robert B. Stepto claim that the new/old book "joins great works in the canon of classic African-­American literature" such as fugitive-slave narratives by Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and Harriet Jacobs, and that it will "forever change our understanding of antebellum America" and the modern institutions it spawned.




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