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  • The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel
  • Lois Brown
The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride: A Rediscovered African American Novel. By Julia C. Collins. Edited by William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun. Foreword by Frances Smith Foster. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 208 pp. $22.00/$11.95 paper.

The republication of The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride is an act of dynamic literary recovery. Editors William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun introduce this work as the first novel, the first serialized novel, and the first non-autobiographical novel by an African American woman. Published serially in 1865 in the Christian Recorder, the gripping story was part of the promising oeuvre of Mrs. Julia C. Collins, a Pennsylvania mother, teacher, and writer. Collins, who died prematurely as a result of tuberculosis, also published forthright didactic essays in the Christian Recorder, and the editorial decision to include her essays in this volume is an important one.

Set in the antebellum South and New England, the story illuminates how racial prejudice, or "the curse of caste," persists across generations and has the power to deprive women, men, and children of true social and emotional freedom. The novel focuses first on the enslaved quadroon Lina Tracy, whose freedom depends upon her white husband Richard purchasing it for her. Unfortunately, Richard Tracy's courageous return to New Orleans to defend his marriage and antislavery politics goes awry. After his outraged father shoots him, the disabled Tracy tries but fails to get word of his survival to his pregnant wife in their Connecticut home. Following Lina's death in childbirth, the Tracys' newborn daughter Claire becomes the long-time charge of Juno Hays, a watchful nurse. After a series of uncanny coincidences that are hallmarks of the sentimental romance, Claire Tracy becomes a governess in the home of her paternal grandparents as well as the love interest of Count Sayvord, a visiting French aristocrat whose father is housing Claire's morose father in an expansive chateau near Marseilles. Will Richard Tracy ever reclaim his daughter? Will the next Tracy family romance nullify the curse that has so damaged their family and countless others in America? Unfortunately, Collins's Christian Recorder [End Page 331] readers and those who encounter her work today will never know exactly what the writer had in mind because she died before the final installments could be published.

The Curse of Caste reorganizes anew African American literary genealogies. It is the forerunner of foundational American novels such as Frances Harper's serialized Minnie's Sacrifice, which also appeared in the Christian Recorder, and it anticipates the intricate social and racial critiques of Harper's Iola Leroy, Pauline Hopkins's Contending Forces, and Charles Chesnutt's "Her Virginia Mammy" and "The Wife of His Youth." This long overdue edition of Collins's work invites us to consider the sophisticated interventions of African American women writers in the nineteenth-century American literary and cultural marketplace. The Curse of Caste will also prompt more discussion about the mission of the Christian Recorder, its staff, and its contributors, as well as considerations of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and its contributions to debates about enslavement, emancipation, and the African American family.

Like Harriet Wilson's fictionalized New England autobiography Our Nig, which appeared five years earlier, Collins's work enriches scholarly evaluations of African American texts that explore family politics, racial intolerance, female subjectivity, thwarted masculinity, and the racialized cult of true womanhood. Collins also provides a sophisticated high domestic rendering of the folk. Her treatment of the nursemaid Juno, who deftly navigates racial stereotypes and effectively deploys folk wisdom, foreshadows the later work of African American writers. Such depictions also establish intriguing intertextual connections to white writers such as Louisa May Alcott whose sensational tales, especially the serialized Behind A Mask, or, A Woman's Power, also disrupt traditional assessments of nineteenth-century domesticity. Finally, as a racialized Bildungsroman, Collins's novel was part of the substantial children's literature published in the Christian Recorder and sheds new light on the politics of advocacy and parenting.

In her May 1864 essay "School...