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Harriet Jacobs published her autobiography, Incidents in the Life ofa Slave Girl, Written By Herself(1861) under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Unlike ordinary slave narratives that tell the story of a male slave’s journey to freedom, Jacobs’s slave narrative focuses on her unflagging devotion to her family. As a female fugitive slave, Jacobs loved her family so much that she chose to live for years in a crawl space where she could keep an eye on her children, rather than escape to her own liberty. Jacobs’s memoir is regarded as a prime example of the slave-narrative tradition, though for a time the book was critically neglected.
Biographical and Historical Context
Child Slave, Young Dream of Freedom
In 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, to Delilah Horniblow and Daniel Jacobs, two slaves owned by different masters. Jacobs did not learn about her slave status until she was six years old; when her mother died, Jacobs went to live with, and help, her mother’s mistress, Margaret Horniblow. Mistress Horniblow taught Jacobs how to read and write, and, though technically a household slave, Jacobs was allowed the freedom of a child. Jacobs dreamed of freedom, but when she was almost twelve, her mistress died and Jacobs was bequeathed to the mistress’s five-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom. Jacobs’s position with the Norcoms began a lifetime of much mental and physical anguish, a story she would one day chronicle.
Obsession and the Hope of Escape
At the Norcom house, Jacobs suffered emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of Mary Matilda’s father, Dr. Norcom. Norcom’s attraction grew into an obsession, and he began to relentlessly pursue her. She longed to escape, and had a moment of inspiration and hope in 1828 when her uncle Benjamin tried to escape to the North. But he did not succeed and was thrown in jail, where he was sorely mistreated for weeks. Once free from jail, he ran away again to Baltimore. From Benjamin’s experience, Jacobs realized that enduring the pain and suffering of slavery was, in the end, the price of freedom.
Eventually the sexual and mental attentions of Dr. Norcom’s advances became too much for Jacobs to bear. When Norcom’s wife began to suspect the interaction between her husband and Jacobs, Jacobs came up with a plan. She had once asked Norcom if she could marry a free black man, and Norcom had refused her request. At this point, however, Jacobs figured that having an affair with Samuel Treadwell Sawyer, an unmarried white lawyer, would provoke Norcom’s anger and would motivate him into selling both her and her children. Soon, Jacobs became pregnant by Sawyer and was allowed to live with her grandmother, but Norcom did not sell her, much to Jacobs’s chagrin. Instead, enraged and jealous over her relationship with Sawyer, Norcom transferred Jacobs from housework to hard labor in the fields of his plantation. Jacobs, afraid that Norcom would assign her children to the fields as well, made up her mind to run away. This decision began a life of hiding with the help of friends and acquaintances, yet despite longing for freedom, Jacobs did not want to go far. She did not want to leave her children behind.
Nine Feet Long and Seven Feet Wide
After running away, since she knew he would try to hunt her down, Jacobs managed to seed rumors that she was in the North. But, Norcom was relentless. Jacobs, concerned that the friends who concealed her would become involved in her plight, chose a final place to hide: a small crawl space high in her grandmother’s porch. This space measured only ”nine feet long and seven feet wide,” and only three feet high at one end. Jacobs shared the space with rodents and insects and did not have much fresh air or light. She had some comfort: her children had been purchased by their father, Sawyer, and lived with her grandmother. For seven years, Jacobs watched her children grow, ”under the same roof.”
Freedom and Writing
In 1842, after long imagining the day when she would eventually escape, Jacobs saw her chance for freedom. Since her children now lived and worked in the North, she decided, with the kindness and aid of friends, to head for New York City. After boarding a ship under a friend’s assumed identity, she made her way North, where she found her children, a job, and new interests. She joined a group of anti-slavery feminists that included Amy Post, a Quaker abolitionist, or anti-slavery activist, who also advocated women’s rights. Post, along with Jacobs’s employer Mary Willis (whom Jacobs worked for as a baby nurse), encouraged Jacobs’s love of writing, and Jacobs penned newspaper and journal essays about slavery. In 1852, Willis would buy Jacobs’s freedom and, in that same year, Jacobs began writing her memoir.
After bad luck with publishing houses, Jacobs decided to publish the book herself and purchased the plates to print the manuscript. The book came out in 1861, prefaced by Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist writer and editor. Through the years of the American Civil War—in which the issue of slavery was of paramount importance to many—Jacobs helped rebuild lives for fugitives, contrabands, and freedmen. After the war, she and her daughter traveled to North and South Carolina to develop relief societies in hopes of helping to reconstruct the defeated South. To raise money and support for the cause, she would travel all the way to London with her message. In 1897, just before her death, she helped inaugurate the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C.
Works in Literary Context
Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is considered a slave narrative, a genre that chronicled the personal agency and emancipation of slaves before, during, and after the Civil War. The slave narrative followed the narrator’s journey from slavery to freedom and detailed horrifying circumstances and tragic events, all the while evoking a theme of triumph over adversity. These narratives influenced many canonical twentieth-century works, including Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945).
The Rhetoric of the Slave Narrative
Usually, slave narratives relied on the rhetoric of abolition to connect with their readers, for the most part, those who already opposed slavery. This rhetoric frequently used Biblical allusion to appeal to Christian morality and would be rich in details that would incite the reader’s compassion and sympathy. In style and tone, the slave narrative might resemble a sermon or, in contrast, a humble tale delivered with shame or apology. For example, in her autobiographical narrative, Jacobs begins by excusing the material to follow: ”The remembrance [of this period in my unhappy life] fills me with sorrow and shame. It pains me to tell you of it.”
Jacobs and Truth
Former slave Sojourner Truth, like Jacobs, used first-person rhetoric to support her opinions and persuade her audience, but Truth employed a sermon-like repetition to drum up audience sympathy, as this excerpt from her speech ”Ain’t I a Woman,” given in 1851 at a women’s rights convention, shows:
I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t Ia woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?
Though her work is stylistically different than Jacobs’s, Truth also argues for the rights of women, particularly black women with histories like her own. Both Truth and Jacobs brought their personal experiences to the fore in order to inspire other women and to given voice to those who could not be heard.
Works in Critical Context
For years, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was dismissed or neglected by scholars and critics who challenged its authenticity. In 1981, however, Jean Fagan Yellin used a collection of Jacobs’s letters to directly address any questions about her authorship or experience. Since then, critics have examined the autobiography through various critical perspectives.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
On January 21, 1861, William C. Nell wrote a letter to an abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator. Nell, a black abolitionist journalist, had introduced Jacobs to editor Lydia Maria Child, the woman who would help Jacobs publish her book. Nell tells the readers that they will enjoy the book’s authentic and morally upstanding message and delivery:
[This book] presents features more attractive than many of its predecessors purporting to be histories of slave life in America, because, in contrast with their mingling of fiction with fact, this record of complicated experience in the life of a young woman, a doomed victim to America’s peculiar institution . . . surely need[s] not the charms that any pen of fiction, however gifted and graceful, could lend…. [From it] all, especially mothers and daughters, may learn yet more of the barbarism of American slavery and the character of its victims.
Many abolitionist newspapers praised Jacobs’s narrative. A reviewer in the Anti-Slavery Bugle wrote on February 9,1861: ”We have read this unpretending work with much pleasure…. The style is simple and attractive—you feel less as though you were reading a book, than talking with the woman herself.” In the same vein, on April 13, 1861, a reviewer for the Weekly Anglo-African wrote:
In such volumes as this, the true romance of American life and history is to be found. Patient suffering, heroic daring, untiring zeal, perseverance seemingly unparalleled, and growth from surroundings of degradation and ignorance to education, refinement, and power: all find in these modest pages their simple, yet affecting narrative.
- Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
- Braxton, Joanne M. and Sharon Zuber. ”Silences in Harriet ‘Linda Brent’ Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism. Edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 146-155.
- Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Ernest, John. Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
- Foster, Frances Smith. ”Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents and the ‘Careless Daughters’ (and Sons) Who Read It.” The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. Edited by Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 92-107.
- –. Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 95-116.
- Gwin, Minrose C. ”Green-eyed Monsters of the Slavocracy: Jealous Mistresses in Two Slave Narratives.” Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 39-52.
- Humphreys, Debra. ”Power and Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Anxious Power: Reading, Writing and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women. Edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York, 1993, pp. 143-155.
- Nudelman, Franny. ”Harriet Jacobs and the Sentimental Politics ofFemale Suffering.” ELH59 (1992): 939-964.
- Yellin, Jean Fagan. ”Jacobs, Harriet Ann (1813-1897).” Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine. New York: Carlson, 1993, pp. 627-628.
- Braxton, Joanne M. ”Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: The Redefinition of the Slave Narrative Genre.” Massachusetts Review 27 (1986): 379-387.
- Yellin, Jean Fagan. ”Legacy Profile: Harriet Ann Jacobs.” Legacy 5, no. 2 (1988): 55-61.
- Campbell, Donna M., Washington State University Online. ”The Slave Narrative.” Retrieved October 19, 2008, from http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/slave.htm. Last updated May 21, 2007.
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Online. ”Documenting the American South: Harriet Jacobs’s ‘Life Among the Contrabands.’ from The Liberator, 5 September 1862.” Retrieved October 19, 2008, from http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/support5.html. Last updated October 19, 2008.
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