A couple of years ago, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was foraging through the black-literature section of a New York bookshop when a small, battered volume caught his eye. He pulled it out of the stack, noting it was written by someone named H.E. Wilson and appeared to be about a black American's life in the North during the early 19th century. He bought it.
Only later did Dr. Gates, an assistant professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Yale University, find that the insignificant-looking book was in fact the first American novel known to be written by a black.
For decades it was thought that the first novel written by a black man was published after the Civil War and the first by a black woman was published in 1892. Gates's discovery of a novel by Harriet E. Wilson, published in 1859, adds 33 years to the history of Afro-American writers.
What Gates picked up in the New York store was titled ''Our Nig, or Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black In A Two-Story White House, North. Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There.'' The author's name was given as ''Our Nig.'' The copyright identified the author as H.E. Wilson.
Gates was at first reluctant to believe that what he had found might force a substantial rewriting of black literary history.
''So many wonderful people have uncovered so much authentic material out of the cracks of Afro-American literary history,'' says Gates, ''that I couldn't quite believe that such a gold mine could have remained uncovered.''
Gates has determined three reasons that ''Our Nig'' was ignored. The novel explores themes that the abolitionists and the black movement could not afford to have publicized: racism in the North, a black man posing as a fugitive slave, and interracial marriage (which would have been taboo from anyone's pen).
On Wednesday, Random House is releasing a new edition of ''Our Nig,'' edited by Gates. As of two weeks ago 8,000 copies had been sold in advance.
After buying the worn copy of ''Our Nig'' for $50, Gates says, he left it on his shelf for more than a year before taking a second look at it and realizing that he might have a valuable discovery in his hands.
A few bibliographies and literary histories have included the novel, but they have either identified its author as a white man or woman or have given no indication of the author's race. But Gates observed that the preface to the novel assumes the tone of a black woman and that three letters of endorsement, written by whites, were appended at the end. Such letters were used to help blacks get published.
Gates says it's unlikely a white person would have gone to such trouble to appear as a black woman: ''1859 was not an especially good year to claim to be black if one was not,'' he says. Only seven years before, Harriet Beecher Stowe had become the most renowned woman novelist in America with the publication of ''Uncle Tom's Cabin.'' It was no secret that Mrs. Stowe was white.
The novel was printed in Boston. Combing the Boston City Directory, Gates found, to his delight, that there was only one H. E. Wilson. But when he searched through a microfilm of the 1860 census, Gates discovered that the author's neighborhood, Robinson Alley, was missing.
The next step was to scan the decaying pages of the original Boston City Directory at the state archives. Gates had leafed eagerly through hundreds of pages when the Robinson Alley portion of the census, which had been tucked behind one of the pages, fell out. The census identified citizens as white, black, or mulatto (having one black parent and one white). A huge ''B'' appeared beside Harriet E. Wilson's name, confirming her Afro-American racial heritage.
Gates has uncovered biographical material that shows the novel was partly based on Mrs. Wilson's experiences.
Harriet E. Adams was born in Milford, N.H., in 1828. Little is known about her early life, but much can be surmised from her novel. The heroine, Alfrado, who, unlike her creator, was mulatto, is abandoned by her mother and becomes an indentured servant to a white Boston family at age 6. Alfrado is severely abused , physically and mentally, until the end of her period of servitude at the age of 18.
That the author received comparable treatment is supported by two facts: the appended letters of the novel attest to the author's personal experience with indentureship; and both the author and her heroine apparently suffered from bad health after that experience.
In the novel, Alfrado marries a black man who poses as a fugitive slave, giving lectures on his fabricated experience to earn money. After Alfrado becomes pregnant, he runs away. When the young child contracts fever, Alfrado moves to New Hampshire and is forced to foster him in a poorhouse, which, says Gates, was ''not a place to get better.''
The author's motive in writing the novel is made plain at the end, when she appeals to the reader to buy her book so that she can free her son from the poorhouse.
Ironically, it was her candidness in dealing with racism in the North and the interracial marriage between a black and a mulatto that prevented the book from receiving recognition even from abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who gave favorable reviews to books of much lesser quality written by black people.
The discovery of this novel tells historians much. ''The fact that it was written by an unknown black person makes it . . . significant, because we didn't know that an anonymous black could write a novel and get it published,'' says Gates. ''It shows that black women were as capable of intellectual attainment as black men.''
Advance sales of the Random House edition of ''Our Nig'' seem to indicate that the plea Wilson made in her preface is being answered: ''I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders.''