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Q&A with NEH Public Scholar Gregg Hecimovich

January 15, 2016

Name:  Gregg Hecimovich  | @gregghecimovich
City and State: Charlotte and Durham, North Carolina
Book Title: "The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative"
Publication date: 2017 or 2018
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins (Senior Editor, Hilary Redmon)
Agent: Paul Lucas/ Janklow & Nesbit Associates
Amount of Public Scholar grant award: $50,400 (12 months)

  1. Tell us the first thing you did when you learned you received an NEH Public Scholar grant. I received a phone call from Senator Lindsey Graham’s office notifying me that I would be receiving good news from the National Endowment for the Humanities later in the week. I was speechless. My daughter was in the room practicing cartwheels. So I immediately joined in. I couldn’t say anything until I received the official word from the NEH.
  2. What’s your writing or academic background? I hold a B.A. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. I am the author of four other books along with numerous scholarly articles. Currently, I am the Josephus Daniels Fellow at The National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. My permanent job is Chair of the Department of English at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
  3. How did you find your book project? In 2001, Henry Louis Gates Jr. purchased a manuscript at auction titled “The Bondwoman’s Narrative.” Gates authenticated it, and then published it in 2002 to great fanfare. The work became an instant New York Times bestseller drawing international attention as potentially the first novel written by a black woman. But while Gates identified the author’s probable master, he did not locate the author. After more than a decade of research, I identified the author as Hannah Bond and uncovered her life story.  I became involved in this research when the literary scholar, Hollis Robbins, approached me about conducting research in the manuscript archives at East Carolina University, where I was a faculty member between 2002-2010. There I began to unearth the mysterious identity of “Hannah Crafts,” bolstered by further materials I gathered in local communities related to the novel.  I owe an enormous debt to my friends Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates Jr. for drawing me into this project and then encouraging me to make it my own.

  1. What sources are you using for your research? The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts traces its story through historical sources preserved in the manuscript that Crafts left behind (The Beinecke Library, Yale University), John Hill Wheeler’s diaries and papers (The Library of Congress, Washington D.C.), the letters of the extended Wheeler family, court cases, wills, property, and slave inventories, census records, and in important regional and national archival collections too numerous to name. This NEH grant assures the support I need to reach all available sources. 

  1. Why do you want this project to have broad appeal? Against formidable odds, Hannah Crafts wrote a brilliant novel based on her own experiences in slavery. Miraculously, her manuscript resurfaced nearly 150 years later. I believe Hannah Crafts’ life story is so fascinating and rich, it deserves the same popular audience that Crafts later reached when her novel became a bestseller.
  2. What is the biggest challenge of writing a scholarly book for a general audience? The tricky part is smuggling the results of all the research in musty archives into an artfully designed narrative that is compelling on its own terms. This is much more challenging (and exciting) to do than I ever imagined. My solution is make this biography at once a detective story, a literary chase, and a cultural history. My goal is to make the work satisfying to both professional readers and to a popular audience. 

  1. Do you have a model or a favorite popular scholarly book? Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) is a favorite.  Also the work of David Blight, Eric Foner, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore, John Stauffer, and Heather Williams. Furthermore, I admire pioneering biographers like Catherine Clinton (Harriet Tubman), Ezra Greenspan (William Wells Brown), Nell Irving Painter (Sojourner Truth), and Jean F. Yellin (Harriet Jacobs).
  2. How has the Public Scholar grant award made a difference in your project? Scholars need support for their research, especially in an environment where intellectual work is largely invisible to the general public and so goes undervalued. Given that reality, the Public Scholar grant helps provide a margin of support not otherwise available to scholars seeking to produce artfully crafted public scholarship.

The NEH Public Scholar program for well-researched books in the humanities for a general audience is open for a second round of applications. Click here to learn more about this grant opportunity and here  to download the .pdf with the Public Scholar application guidelines. The application deadline is February 2, 2016. Contact publicscholar@neh.gov with questions.