A Slave Story Is Rediscovered, and a Dispute Begins

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It reads like a typical Victorian melodrama: an impoverished young woman, “strangely, wildly and darkly beautiful,” becomes a governess in a wealthy household, and, behold, a French count falls for her and wants to sweep her away.

But there’s a crucial difference: It is race-torn America; the heroine is mulatto; the book, “The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride,” is believed by some scholars to be the first novel ever published by an African-American woman.

Julia C. Collins, a free black woman who lived in Williamsport, Pa., serialized “The Curse of Caste” in 1865 in The Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This month it is being published for the first time in book form by Oxford University Press.

But the republication has stirred a dispute between its editors — William L. Andrews, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University — and the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who says that “The Curse of Caste” is not, as stated on the jacket, the first novel by an African-American woman.

Mr. Gates says that honor belongs to “Our Nig” (1859), by Harriet E. Wilson, which he himself brought to light in 1982.

Moreover, the book jacket of “The Curse of Caste” proclaims that it has been “rediscovered.” Mr. Gates said that he published it in microfiche form in 1989 as part of “The Black Periodical Fiction Project.” At Mr. Gates’s request, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Kachun added a footnote to the book acknowledging this.

(In 2001, Mr. Gates also announced the discovery of “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” written sometime before the Civil War and said to be by a former slave, Hannah Crafts, though Ms. Crafts’s identity has never been established. The first known novel by any African-American is “Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter,” by William Wells Brown, in 1853.)

The dispute between the scholars centers on competing definitions of what constitutes a novel.

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