Harriet Jacobs Jacobs, Harriet (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

Jacobs's 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 of 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 was consequently 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 critical attention. A great deal of modern criticism has focused 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 Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Feminist scholars have also explored Jacobs's notions of selfhood and womanhood, her treatment of the female body, and the impact of her work on the genre of the slave narrative.


Jacobs was born a slave in North Carolina around 1813. 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 Jacobs to read, spell, and sew; she died when Jacobs was eleven or twelve, and willed the young girl to Mary Mathilda Norcom, Horniblow's three-year-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 slaveholding 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 see to the children in her absence. In her narrative, Jacobs wrote that at this time she hid for seven years in the attic crawlspace of 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 succeeded 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 $300 to free her. Soon after, Jacobs was urged by Amy Post to write her life's story, and she spent five years doing so. After trying for three years to get her narrative 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 her book, Jacobs states that her "adventures may seem incredible," but assures readers that her "descriptions fall short of the facts." She 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 upholds. While appealing to a northern, white, female audience at a time when "true womanhood" meant chastity and virtue, Jacobs argues that slavery makes it impossible for a black woman to live a virtuous, chaste life. As she champions 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 this respect, Incidents differs markedly from typical, male slave narratives, which emphasize the ways in which slavery destroys masculinity. Nevertheless, a common quality shared by male slave narratives and Jacobs's Incidents is the feeling 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, many critical studies have focused on the way in which Incidents exploits the conventions of the domestic literature genre or the slave narrative. Feminist scholars have also been interested in comparing Jacob's female perspective to that of male writers and have also analyzed the treatment and politicization of the female body in her narrative. Other issues that feminist commentators have explored include Jacobs's notion of the self, her exploration of the idea of "true womanhood," her assertion of the black female slave voice, her subversive critique of the domestic genre, and her writing as an act of defiance and liberation.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself [as Linda Brent] (autobiography) 1861

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Harriet A. "Letter from a Fugitive Slave. Slaves Sold Under Peculiar Circumstances." The New York Tribune (21 June 1853): 6.

In the following essay, Jacobs's first publication, the pseudonymous writer presents an account of the violation of her "sister," presenting materials she would use in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

SIR: Having carefully read your paper for some months I became very much interested in some of the articles and comments written on Mrs. Tyler's Reply to the Ladies of England. Being a slave myself, I could not have felt otherwise. Would that I could write an article worthy of notice in your columns. As I never enjoyed the advantages of an education, therefore I could not study the arts of reading and writing, yet poor as it may be, I had rather give it from my own hand, than have it said that I employed others to do it for me. The truth can never be told so well through the second and third person as from yourself. But I am straying from the question. As Mrs. Tyler and her friend Bhains were so far used up, that he could not explain what those peculiar circumstances were, let one whose peculiar sufferings justifies her in explaining it for Mrs. Tyler.

I was born a slave, reared in the Southern hotbed until I was the mother of two children, sold at the early age of two and four years old. I have been hunted through all of the Northern States, but no, I will not tell you of my own suffering—no, it would harrow up my soul, and defeat the object that I wish to pursue. Enough—the dregs of that bitter cup have been my bounty for many years.

And as this is the first time that I ever took my pen in hand to make such an attempt, you will not say that it is fiction, for had I the inclination I have neither the brain or talent to write it. But to this very peculiar circumstance under which slaves are sold.

My mother was held as property by a maiden lady; when she marries, my younger sister was in her fourteenth year, whom they took into the family. She was as gentle as she was beautiful. Innocent and guileless child, the light of our desolate hearth! But oh, my heart bleeds to tell you of the misery and degradation she was forced to suffer in slavery. The monster who owned her had no humanity in his soul. The most sincere affection that his heart was capable of, could not make him faithful to his beautiful and wealthy bride the short time of three months, but every strategem was used to seduce my sister. Mortified and tormented beyond endurance, this child came and threw herself on her mother's bosom, the only place where she could seek refuge from her persecutor; and yet she could not protect her child that she bore into the world. On that bosom with bitter tears she told her troubles, and entreated her mother to save her. And oh, Christian mothers! you that have daughters of your own, can you think of your sable sisters without offering a prayer to that God who created all in their behalf! My poor mother, naturally high-spirited, smarting under what she considered as the wrongs and outrages which her child had to bear, sought her master, entreating him to spare her child. Nothing could exceed his rage at this what he called impertinence. My mother was dragged to jail, there remained twenty-five days, with Negro traders to come in as they liked to examine her, as she was offered for sale. My sister was told that she must yield, or never expect to see her mother again. There were three younger children; on no other condition could she be restored to them, without the sacrifice of one. That child gave herself up to her master's bidding, to save one that was dearer to her...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)

Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Braxton, Joanne M. "Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: The Re-Definition of the Slave Narrative Genre." The Massachusetts Review 27, no. 2 (summer 1986): 379-87.

In the following essay, Braxton explores the impact of Jacobs's slave narrative on the male-dominated genre.

"Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech."

Isaiah, XXX, original epigram from Incidents in...

(The entire section is 13171 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Yellin, Jean Fagan. "'Written by Herself': Harriet Jacobs's Slave Narrative." American Literature 53, no. 3 (November 1981): 479-86.

Seminal study that reveals the existence of letters attesting to the authenticity of Jacobs's narrative and illuminating the editorial role of the white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child.

——. "Legacy Profile: Harriet Ann Jacobs." Legacy 5, no. 2 (fall 1988): 55-61.

Overview of Jacobs's life and her narrative.

——. "Harriet Jacobs's Family History." American...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)