(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Lydia Maria Child (essay date 1861)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Jean Fagan Yellin (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Minrose C. Gwin (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6244 words.)

Thomas Doherty (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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'...

(The entire section is 5275 words.)

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1650 words.)

Mary Helen Washington (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4300 words.)

Hazel V. Carby (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9604 words.)

Sarah Way Sherman (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8895 words.)

Valerie Smith (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5582 words.)

Bruce Mills (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7413 words.)

Anne B. Dalton (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11246 words.)

Carolyn Sorisio (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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'sand 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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 880 words.)