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.