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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | Study Guide

Harriet Jacobs

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Harriet Jacobs | Biography


On February 11, 1813, Harriet Ann Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina. As a young orphan, she was close with her grandmother, Molly Horniblow. After her mother passed away, Jacobs was sent to live with her mother's mistress (a woman who supervises servants), Margaret Horniblow, who taught her how to read, write, and sew. After her mistress passed away, Jacobs was willed to the niece of her mistress, a child whose father, Dr. James Norcom, incessantly pursued Jacobs. She had two children with a neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. Determined to save them from slavery, she escaped from the plantation. Sawyer purchased his children, and they lived with Jacobs's grandmother.

With the help of family and friends, Jacobs fled to New York in 1842, where she worked as a nursemaid for the family of poet Nathaniel Parker Willis. She also spent time in Rochester, New York, with her brother, John Jacobs, who started the antislavery reading room and bookstore associated with social reformer Frederick Douglass's newspaper, The North Star, the first newspaper owned by an African American. An abolitionist and journalist, Harriet Jacobs published articles in numerous periodicals including Frederick Douglass' Paper and The New York Tribune. It was while working in the reading room and bookstore that Jacobs met Amy Post, an abolitionist and feminist who convinced her to record her story.

Writing late at night between her workday and her chores, Jacobs worked on her autobiography for years, finishing it in 1858; she would later publish the book under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

Jacobs had a difficult time publishing her book. Even before writing it, she had reached out to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in hopes Stowe would write the story, but Stowe declined. After Jacobs was introduced to Lydia Maria Child, a writer and abolitionist, Child agreed to edit the manuscript. Jacobs's book contract failed when her publisher went bankrupt, so Jacobs self-published her book in 1861. A year later, a London publisher brought out the book under the title The Deeper Wrong; Or, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Because of the extraordinary details of Jacobs's life and the book's fictionalization of the names of people and places, on its publication readers dismissed the work as fiction, despite its importance as one of the first slave narratives published by a woman. It disappeared from public notice, but interest in the book revived after scholar Jean Fagan Yellin documented the text's accuracy in 1981.

Following the 1861 publication of her book, Jacobs committed herself to relief efforts. With her daughter, Louisa, she started the Jacobs Free School in Alexandria, Virginia, helping freed slaves transition to their new lives and later aided freed slaves in Savannah, Georgia. Jacobs died on March 7, 1897.

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