Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Analysis

Harriet Jacobs

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was long believed to be a fictional account of slavery. Through extensive research, however, scholars have documented its authenticity as an autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, and it is now considered one of the most important antebellum slave narratives. No doubt the author’s decision to use pseudonyms for herself and her characters and the “novelish” nature of the autobiography (with its plot, dialogue, and episodic chapters) led some literary critics and historians to question the historical authenticity of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Possibly, too, the relative lack of access to written modes of expression by black women of the early nineteenth century also inspired some of this skepticism.

The issue of authenticity is, in fact, central to the whole tradition of African American slave narrative. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, like other narratives, was written as testimony on behalf of and documentation for the antislavery cause. As such, it represents a highly activist literature, one in which the express purpose was political. Jacobs participated in the abolitionist movement and was assisted in her literary efforts by other abolitionists.

As was the case with many other slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is accompanied by letters attesting its authenticity: the first by Amy Post, a white Quaker abolitionist, and the second by George Lowther, a free black man in Boston. This tradition of advocacy letters arose in response to early skepticism inside and outside the white abolitionist movement about the authenticity of slave narratives in general. Were these stories of the horrors of slavery really true? How could their authenticity be proven?

In essence, the question became “Who will be allowed to speak?” and “In what terms?” Harriet Jacobs, like several other leading black abolitionists, had disagreements with white abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe over the best way to present her story. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was edited by white abolitionist editor Lydia Marie Child. The involvement of white antislavery activists in the publishing of some slave narratives has inspired some literary critics to wonder if the literary voice of slave narrative represents...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. A valuable exploration of African American autobiography and slave narrative. Includes a long section on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that places Jacobs’ work in relation to other African American autobiography.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. A useful history of the development of the slave-narrative genre.

Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. A passionate, scholarly, and detailed study of early African American history (to 1865). Excellent source for understanding Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in the broader context of antebellum black activism. Includes an excellent bibliography and thorough documentation.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Edited by L. Maria Child and Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. An excellent source for several reasons. Yellin provides a substantive historical and analytical introduction to the text, with an interesting feminist critique. She has extensively documented the historical facts, chronology, and personages in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and provides samples of Jacobs’ correspondence and photographs.

Williams, Kenny J. They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930. Nashville, Tenn.: Townsend Press, 1970. Chapter 3 discusses the structure of the slave narrative.