Harriet Jacobs c. 1813-1897
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Linda Brent) American autobiographer.
Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), stands out from the male-dominated slave narrative genre in its unique point of view and especially in its focus on the sexual exploitation of the female slave. Soon after the publication of Incidents, which Jacobs penned under the pseudonym Linda Brent, questions arose regarding the text's authenticity. Many believed the book to have been written by its white abolitionist editor, Lydia Maria Child. Doubts about the narrative's veracity and its true author persisted into the twentieth century, and Incidents consequently was neglected by historians and critics alike. In 1981, however, Jean Fagan Yellin discovered Jacobs's correspondence with Child, and with another abolitionist friend, Amy Post. The letters, along with the rest of Yellin's research, assured the authenticity of Jacobs's narrative; and since then Incidents has received its due critical attention. Modern criticism has focused largely on Jacobs's exploitation of the sentimental domestic genre and on the differences between Jacobs's work and slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845).
Jacobs was born a slave in North Carolina. Her parents were both slaves, but her grandmother had been emancipated and owned her own home, earning a living as a baker. When Jacobs was six years old, her mother died, and she was sent to the home of her mother's mistress, Margaret Horniblow. Horniblow taught the young Jacobs to read, spell, and sew; she died when Jacobs was eleven or twelve and willed Jacobs to Mary Matilda Norcom, Horniblow's threeyear-old niece. While living in the Norcom household, Jacobs suffered the sexual harassment of Dr. James Norcom, Mary's father and a prominent physician. Dr. Norcom threatened Jacobs with concubinage when she was sixteen years old. Rather than submit to the doctor, Jacobs became the mistress of a white slave-holding neighbor of the Norcoms and soon announced that she was pregnant. She bore two children, both fathered by this white neighbor. At the age of twenty-one, Jacobs ran away, believing that Norcom would sell the children in her absence. In her narrative, Jacobs, as Linda Brent, wrote that at this time she hid for seven years in an attic crawlspace in her grandmother's home, where her children lived unaware of their mother's presence. The children were purchased by their father shortly after Jacobs went into hiding; they were allowed to continue living with their grandmother. Jacobs finally succeeding in fleeing North in 1842. There she reunited with her children and tried to establish a home for her family. In 1850, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (which stated that anyone caught aiding a fugitive slave was subject to punishment) threatened her safety and Jacobs once again went into hiding. In 1852 her employer, Mrs. Nathaniel Parker Willis, purchased Jacobs for three hundred dollars in order to free her. Soon after, Jacobs was urged by Amy Post to write her life's story, and spent five years doing just that. After three years of trying to get her book published, Jacobs finally succeeded in 1861. Throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jacobs and her daughter continued to fight for the rights of African Americans. Jacobs died in 1897.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl details the horrific experiences endured by Jacobs. In the preface to the book, Jacobs, as Linda Brent, states that her "adventures may seem incredible," but assures readers that her "descriptions fall short of the facts." Brent describes her life as a slave from her early years, when she did not even know she was a slave, to the violence and exploitation she endured as a teenager at the hands of her master, and finally to her repugnance at the thought of her well-meaning employer purchasing her in order to free her. Although Jacobs wrote Incidents in the style of the sentimental novel, she seems to argue against the conception of womanhood that the sentimental novel conventionally upheld. While appealing to a Northern, white, female audience at a time when "true womanhood" meant chastity and virtue, Jacobs urges that slavery makes it impossible for a black woman to live a virtuous, chaste life. As she upholds some of the conventions of the sentimental genre by emphasizing the primacy and significance of motherhood and domesticity, Jacobs also demonstrates how the institution of slavery threatens and destroys white and black women alike. In these respects, Incidents differs markedly from typical, male slave narratives, which emphasize the ways in which slavery destroys masculinity. Yet a common factor among male slave narratives and Jacobs's Incidents is the sense of triumph the writer describes as he or she reclaims a sense of self.
Incidents received little critical attention until Yellin's research revealed the authenticity of the narrative. This research established Jacobs as the sole author of Incidents and clarified Child's limited role as editor. Since then, critical studies usually discuss the way in which Incidents uses or exploits the conventions of one of two genres: domestic literature or slave narrative. Minrose C. Gwin argues that Jacobs was influenced by sentimental literature in that Jacobs felt compelled to apologize for and explain her reasons for her sexual experiences. Gwin goes on to state that whereas sentimental literature advanced ideals such as virtue and sensibility, Jacobs shows that such ideals were incompatible with the slave woman's experience. While Thomas Doherty identifies the shortcomings of Incidents as a work of sentimental literature, he argues that the book moves "women's literature" into the realm of politics. Similarly, Jean Fagan Yellin suggests that Incidents is designed to prompt women to political action. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese contends that in writing to an audience of free, Northern women, Jacobs uses the style of sentimental domestic fiction, but the tone and content of the book differ considerably from other works of domestic fiction. While Fox-Genovese states that Incidents depicts slavery as a violation of womanhood, Hazel V. Carby argues that Jacobs appropriates the conventions of the sentimental genre in order to examine the standards of female behavior and the relevance of such standards to the experience of black women in particular. Similarly, Valerie Smith demonstrates that although Jacobs uses the rhetoric of sentimental fiction, the author transcends the constraints of the genre in order to express the "complexity of her experience as a black woman." Mary Helen Washington, on the other hand, views Incidents more as a slave narrative than a sentimental novel. Washington argues that as a slave narrative, Incidents surpasses gender boundaries; Washington emphasizes the significance of the reclamation of the self in Incidents and in other slave narratives. Sarah Way Sherman also examines Incidents as a slave narrative, discussing the ways that the book differs from Douglass's Narrative. Sherman specifically emphasizes the differences between Douglass's and Jacobs's upbringing as well as the obvious difference in gender. Furthermore, Sherman notes that the nineteenth-century's conception of domesticity is challenged by Jacobs in Incidents. Like Sherman, Carolyn Sorisio examines Incidents in terms of both the slave narrative and the sentimental domestic genre and concludes that Jacobs's story—which, Sorisio contends, focuses most heavily on the issue of identity and the conception of self—cannot fit into either of the genres Jacobs has used to tell it.
SOURCE: "Introduction" to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself by Harriet A. Jacobs, edited by L. Maria Child (1861), new edition edited and introduced by Jean Fagan Yellin, Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 3-4.
[In the introduction that accompanied Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl upon its publication in 1861, Child attests to the veracity and purpose of the text]
The author of the following autobiography is personally known to me, and her conversation manners and inspire me with confidence.1 During the last seventeen years, she has lived the greater part of the time with a distinguished family in New York, and has so deported herself as to be highly esteemed by them. This fact is sufficient, without further credentials of her character. I believe those who know her will not be disposed to doubt her veracity, though some incidents in her story are more romantic than fiction.
At her request, I have revised her manuscript; but such changes as I have made have been mainly for purposes of condensation and orderly arrangement. I have not added any thing to the incidents, or changed the import of her very pertinent remarks. With trifling exceptions, both the ideas and the language are her own. I pruned excrescences a little, but otherwise I had no reason for changing The her lively and dramatic way of telling her own story.2 The names...
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SOURCE: "Written by Herself Harriet Jacobs' Slave Narrative," in American Literature, Vol. 53, No. 3, November, 1981, pp. 479-86.
[In the following seminal study, Yellin reveals the existence of a "cache of [Jacobs's letters]" that attests to the authenticity of Incidents, establishes Jacobs as the author, and illuminates the editorial role of Lydia Maria Child. This discovery, Yellin emphasizes, transforms "a questionable slave narrative into a well-documented pseudonymous autobiography."]
Your proposal to me has been thought over and over again, but not without some most painful remembrance. Dear Amy, if it was the life of a heroine with no degradation associated with it! Far better to have been one of the starving poor of Ireland whose bones had to bleach on the highways than to have been a slave with the curse of slavery stamped upon yourself and children. .. . I have tried for the last two years to conquer . . . [my stubborn pride] and I feel that God has helped me, or I never would consent to give my past life to anyone, for I would not do it without giving the whole truth. If it could help save another from my fate, it would be selfish and unChristian in me to keep it back.1
With these words, more than a century ago the newly emancipated fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs expressed conflicting...
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SOURCE: "Green-Eyed Monsters of the Slavocracy: Jealous Mistresses in Two Slave Narratives," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 39-52.
[In the following essay, Gwin examines the way in which the stereotypes and relationships of white and black women within the "slavocracy" of the South inform Jacobs's work. Gwin also demonstrates how Jacobs's narrative was influenced both by the conventions of the sentimental genre and by her white female audience, pointing out that the ideals of virtue and sensibility advanced by sentimental literature were incompatible with the experience of slave women.]
Historians of the southern experience have observed volatile psychological and sociological connections between the white man's sexual exploitation of the slave woman and the evolution of the white woman's pedestal.1 It is not the smallest irony of the slavocracy that its codes of conduct demanded moral superiority from white women and sexual availability from black, yet simultaneously expected mistress and slave woman to live and work in intimate physical proximity. As Katherine Fishburn points out, southern mythos denied women of both races sexual self-determination: "Whereas the lady was deprived of her sexuality, the black woman was identified with hers." White women were characterized...
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SOURCE: "Harriet Jacobs' Narrative Strategies: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 79-91.
[In the following essay, Doherty examines Jacob's use of the conventions of the sentimental genre and describes the shortcomings of Incidents as a sentimental novel. Rather, he argues that Jacobs "ingeniously inducts 'women's literature' into the cause of women's politics."]
In 1853, the fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs confided her literary ambitions to the poet and abolitionist Amy Post. "Don't expect too much of me, dear Amy," she cautioned, "You shall have truth but not talent" (Sterling 79). Jacobs' modest opinion of the work that became Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, has generally accorded with critical opinion. When noted at all, it has been valued primarily as a historical document, one of the precious few antebellum slave narratives written by a woman—and even then, until quite recently, a text considered of dubious authenticity.1 Likewise, its formal virtues have received scant consideration, Jacobs' stylistic debt to the sentimental novel typically warranting her the bemused appellation "the Pamela of the slave narratives" (Bayliss 108, Foster 58-59).
Though the dearth of historical and literary regard has lately been somewhat...
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SOURCE: "To Write My Self: The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women," in Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, edited by Shari Benstock, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 161-80.
[In the following excerpt, Fox-Genovese explores the differences in tone and content between Incidents and other works of sentimental domestic literature.]
. . . Harriet Jacobs, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, left no doubt about whom she thought she was writing for: "O, you happy free women, contrast your New Year's day with that of the poor bond-woman!" (14).
Jacobs wrote, at least in part, to introduce the world to the special horrors of slavery for women. To achieve her goal, she sought to touch the hearts of northern white women and, accordingly, wrote to the extent possible in their idiom. She so doggedly followed the tone and model of sentimental domestic fiction, that for a long time it was assumed that her editor, Lydia Maria Child, had written the book. Jacobs's surviving correspondence proves that she, not Child, wrote her own story, as she claimed in its subtitle "written by herself."21 And Jacobs's text differs significantly in tone and content from other examples of domestic fiction. She casts her withering indictment of slavery as the violation of womanhood. Time and again she asserts and demonstrates that if slavery is bad for men,...
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SOURCE: "Meditations on History: The Slave Woman's Voice," in Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960, Anchor Press, 1987, pp. 3-15.
[In the following essay, Washington analyzes Jacobs's use of the sentimental domestic genre, noting that this was "a poor choice for her story," and emphasizes that Incidents reads more as a slave narrative than a sentimental novel, particularly in the way in which it transcends the boundaries of gender.]
In 1861, with the help of two white abolitionists, Amy Post and Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, abolitionist and exslave, published under the pseudonym, Linda Brent, an account of her life in slavery called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the few slave narratives written by a woman.1 Working in New York as a nurse for the well-known magazinist, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Jacobs had to write her autobiography secretly at night when she could steal the time from her duties taking care of four small children in an eighteen-room house. The Willis' demanding social schedule exhausted everyone in the house. Jacobs wrote to Amy Post in 1853 that despite these continual interruptions, she was determined to get her story written: "Poor Hatty's name is so much in demand that I cannot accomplish much; if I could steal away and have two quiet months to myself, I would work night and day though it should all fall to the ground...
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SOURCE: "'Hear My Voice, Ye Careless Daughters': Narratives of Slave and Free Women before Emancipation," in Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 40-61.
[In the following essay, Carby explores the influence of the nineteenth-century conception of "true womanhood" on Incidents and contends that Jacobs used the events of her life to "critique conventional standards of female behavior and to question their relevance and applicability to the experience of black women."]
A survey of the general terrain of images and stereotypes produced by antebellum sexual ideologies is a necessary but only preliminary contribution to understanding how the ideology of true womanhood influenced and, to a large extent, determined the shape of the public voice of black women writers. What remains to be considered is how an ideology that excluded black women from the category "women" affected the ways in which they wrote and addressed an audience. The relevance of this question extends beyond the writing of slave narratives, and I will first examine texts written by free black women living in the North before turning to a slave narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
In 1850, Nancy Prince published in Boston her Life and Travels. A free woman, Nancy Prince declared that her object in...
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SOURCE: "Moral Experience in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," in NWSA Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 167-85.
[In the following essay, Sherman pinpoints the source of the moral conflict and ambiguity in Incidents as the narrator's struggle with the exploitation and brutality of slavery and the idealized conception of "true womanhood." Furthermore, Sherman argues that the depiction of this conflict is the source of the work's strength.]
"Slavery is terrible for men," Harriet Jacobs wrote in 1861, "but it is far more terrible for women." Citing this passage from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jean Fagan Yellin argues that Jacobs's book was the first to address the sexual exploitation of women under slavery. But Yellin also notes the rhetorical strain of such outspokenness. Compared to the classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Jacobs's narrative can appear weakened by conflict. As I hope to show, however, this important book's ambivalence and troubled voice point toward its strength.1 While the thrust of Incidents in the Life comes from a unequivocal denunciation of an evil system, its tension comes from a painful confrontation with moral conflict and moral ambiguity. The pseudonymous narrator, Linda Brent, is caught between the brutal, exploitative bonds of slavery and the idealized,...
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SOURCE: "'Loopholes of Retreat': Architecture and Ideology in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," in Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Meridian, 1990, pp. 212-26.
[In the following essay, Smith examines the implications of the literal and figurative "structures of confinement" in Incidents (such as the attic crawlspace in which Jacobs lived for seven years and which she describes as a "loophole of retreat"). Smith argues that such periods of "apparent enclosure" serve to empower Jacobs to manipulate her destiny.]
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the account of her life as a slave and escape to freedom, Harriet Jacobs refers to the crawl space in which she concealed herself for seven years as a "loophole of retreat."1 The phrase calls attention both to the closeness of her hiding place—three feet high, nine feet long, seven feet wide—and the passivity that even voluntary confinement imposes. For if the combined weight of racism and sexism already placed inexorable restrictions upon her as a black female slave in the antebellum South, her options seem even narrower after she conceals herself in the garret, where just to speak to her loved ones jeopardizes her own and their welfare.
And yet Jacobs's phrase, "the loophole of retreat," possesses an...
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SOURCE: "Lydia Maria Child and the Endings to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," in American Literature, Vol. 64, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 255-72
[In the essay that follows, Mills studies the influence of Lydia Maria Child (abolitionist and editor of Incidents) on Jacobs's writing and on the book's structure and content.]
In a letter to Harriet Jacobs written prior to the publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Lydia Maria Child suggested a significant revision: "I think the last Chapter, about John Brown, had better be omitted. It does not naturally come into your story, and the M.S. is already too long. Nothing can be so appropriate to end with, as the death of your grand-mother."1 Child's advice is especially intriguing in light of her own involvement in the John Brown affair; just over a week after his capture on 18 October 1859, Child sent him a letter volunteering her aid: "I long to nurse you, to speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation" (CC, 41/1123). Her abolitionist pamphlet entitled Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Governor Wise and Mrs. Mason, of Virginia, published in 1860, dealt sympathetically with John Brown and helped marshal Northern sentiment against the South immediately before the Civil War. Her recommendation to Jacobs, then, to delete the material on Brown...
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SOURCE: "The Devil and the Virgin: Writing Sexual Abuse in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," in Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women's Writing as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgari, University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 38-61.
[In the following essay, Dalton examines the "tensions between what [Jacobs] literally states and metaphorically suggests about sexual exploitation," pointing to the parallels between the way in which Jacobs, through Linda Brent, describes her sexual exploitation and twentieth-century studies on the effects of molestation on girls and women. Dalton suggests that through her language and imagery, Jacobs implies that greater sexual abuses occurred in her life than what Brent reports.]
Harriet Jacobs confronted multiple binds as she attempted to render her experiences of sexual abuse and the systematic sexual exploitation of slave women. In her 1861 narrative, she grappled with the constraints of the literary conventions of the time, while also making use of them to keep her audience's sympathy and to rally support for the abolitionist cause. In her preface, Jacobs points to absences and silences in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.1 She writes that her "descriptions fall far short of the facts" (xiii) and that "it would have been more pleasant to [her] to have been silent about [her] own history" (xiv). Jacobs emphasizes that it is her...
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SOURCE: "'There is might in Each': Conceptions of Self in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself" in Legacy, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996, pp. 1-18.
[In the following essay, Sorisio discusses the influence of Romanticism and Transcendentalism on the nineteenth-century's—and on Jacobs's—perception of "self," arguing that Linda Brent's sense of self encompasses both an individual and a collective identity. Additionally, Sorisio examines Jacobs's exploitation of sentimental conventions.]
In 1992, archaeologists discovered an eighteenth-century slave burial ground in lower Manhattan, sparking controversy over the fate of the skeletal remains. Then-mayor David Dinkens called for construction on the site to halt, dismayed by the "highly inappropriate and insensitive" handling of the bones. However, the chief archaeologist praised the excavation: "We're picking up the pages from an 18th-century primary document and dusting them off, but as of yet, we haven't read them." The archaeologist's comparison of the bones to text underscores the intricate question of how we read the remains of a past that systematically denied people dignity in both their lives and their deaths. Some saw the bones as individuals, while others viewed them as part of a cultural text, sacred not for their own identity, but rather for what they could collectively contribute to African-American...
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Yellin, Jean Fagan. "Harriet Jacobs's Family History." American Literature 66, No. 4 (December 1994): 765-67.
Corrects an error in her 1987 edition of Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself published by Harvard University Press. Yellin discusses the earlier misinformation she provided regarding the identity of Jacobs's father, and the impact of the new, correct information on the understanding of Jacobs's family history.
——. "Legacy Profile: Harriet Ann Jacobs." Legacy 5, No. 2 (Fall 1988): 55-61.
Offers an overview of Jacobs's life and her work, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Bartholomaus, Craig. "'What Would You Be?' Racial Myths and Cultural Sameness in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." CLA Journal XXXIX, No. 2 (December 1995): 179-94.
Examines the use of "true womanhood" as well as other textual elements in Incidents "against the backdrop of nineteenth-century racial science," in order to demonstrate the ways in which the text refutes the negative stereotypes advanced by that science.
Becker, Elizabeth C. "Harriet Jacobs's Search for Home." CLA Journal XXXV,...
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