Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

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}

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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, Jacobs’s overriding goal became freeing her children and herself. When she was twenty-one, Norcom renewed his pursuit, punishing her refusal by sending her out to hard labor on a plantation. Learning that he was about to do the same to her children, she decided to escape. Rightly believing that Norcom would sell the children to their father if she were gone, Jacobs hid with friends, both black and white. Norcom frantically sought her. The children lived with her grandmother, and she moved into the tiny attic crawlspace of her grandmother’s house. There, able to watch the children through a chink in the wall, she spent nearly seven years—reading the Bible, sewing clothes for the children, and planning means to free them all.

In 1842, she succeeded in fleeing north, was united with Louisa, and arranged for Joseph to be sent to her brother. Finding a place in the home of editor Nathaniel Parker Willis, she began twenty years of work in favor of abolition and women’s rights. She was encouraged to write her own story by such antislavery feminists as Amy Post and Lydia Maria Child. After several attempts at publication, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was privately printed early in 1861.

Jacobs had many doubts to overcome before publication. Given the obvious power of southern slaveholders, her subject was taboo. She wished to write a book exposing the sexual exploitation of slave women; to do so, however, she would have to reveal her own sexual history and the fact that she was an unwed mother of two. Her resolution was to create an alter ego and pseudonym, Linda Brent, who presents a first-person narrative that withholds nothing and moves the book beyond all previous limits of “polite” women’s writing. Of the ninety or so book-length narratives published before Emancipation, fewer than ten are by women. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the great achievements of nineteenth century American literature and fulfills the promise of the slave narrative “to tell a free story.” Jacobs draws in her audience with her opening sentence, “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.” She presents two seemingly conflicting stories: On one hand, her book is the personal narrative of a heroic slave mother who overcomes enormous odds to rescue her children and herself from a vile institution; on the other, it is the first-person confession of a “fallen woman.” Jacobs uses language differently in each instance. In the first, she gives precise details in direct and vivid language. In the second, admitting her sexual history, she omits details, uses vaguer diction and elaborate sentences, and resorts to the language generally associated with popular fiction of the period. Nonetheless, her narrator never evades responsibility for her actions; she is an active, thinking figure.

Except for one trip to her hometown of Edenton, Jacobs spent the remainder of her life working in Washington, D.C., where she died in 1897.

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