Study Guide

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A writer, abolitionist, reformer, and educator, Harriet Ann Jacobs was the author of the single most important slave narrative ever published by an African American woman. As a literary form, the slave narrative is considered to be the primary antebellum genre for black American writers, as well as a primary source for all historians seeking information about slavery. In stature and eloquence, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is regarded as highly as the earlier narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and William Wells Brown. It possesses the distinction of presenting a woman’s firsthand account of slavery as no other narrative does.{$S[A]Brent, Linda;Jacobs, Harriet}

Probably during the autumn of 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in eastern North Carolina. When she was six years old, her mother died, and she was taken into her owner’s home and treated almost as one of the family. She was encouraged to read and sew, as Phillis Wheatley had been two generations earlier. When she was eleven, she was willed to her mistress’s young niece and sent to live in the nearby Norcom family home. After her father died the following year, Jacobs was left with two remaining relatives—her younger brother and, most important, her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a free woman who operated a bakery in her home and served as a village matriarch.

Jacobs’s dilemma as woman and writer was thrust upon her as she grew into adolescence. Her owner, Dr. James Norcom, a middle-aged, married physician and one of the most powerful men in the area, was sexually and obsessively attracted to her. He harassed her relentlessly, seeking to turn her into his concubine. To forestall his maneuvers, Jacobs at age sixteen made a choice born of despair: She formed a sexual and protective liaison with a less hateful white neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. From this relationship, she had two children, a son, Joseph (born around 1829 or 1830), and a daughter, Louisa Matilda (born 1833).

Thereafter,...

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Harriet Jacobs Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. An excellent study of the slave narrative as literary form.

Garfield, Deborah M., and Rafia Zafar, eds. Harriet Jacobs and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”: New Critical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A critical study. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987. Includes an introduction by Gates.

Johnson, Yvonne. The Voices of African American Women: The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Examines Jacobs’s narrative in the light of twentieth century works by African American women.

Kaplan, Carla. The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Discusses Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Charlotte Brontë, and Alice Walker.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Analyzes the political and social views of Jacobs, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.

Sekora, John, and Darwin T. Turner, eds. The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1982. Contains several essays on Jacobs’s narrative.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. Places Jacobs with other writers and lecturers.