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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | Study Guide

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl between 1853 and 1858, and it was published in 1861. Jacobs was a formerly enslaved woman who escaped to the North after living in hiding for years, but her narrative was overshadowed by the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and achieved little notice for decades. In fact, people doubted it was written by a formerly enslaved person for several reasons, including the dramatic style of writing as well as her use of pseudonyms. Because of its shocking nature, some even doubted it was a nonfictional account, assuming it was a novel.

In the 1970s and 1980s, historian and professor Jean Fagin Yellin began to publish research on the narrative, supporting its authenticity. Yellin's research brought the book's descriptions of enslaved women's domestic life and the sexual abuse they suffered back into the public eye at a time when interest in both women's studies and slave narratives as a genre was growing. As a result, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl eventually became one of the best-known slave narratives.

1. The New-York Tribune ceased publishing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl because it was too shocking.

While Jacobs was working as a nursemaid in the North, she began recording her previous experiences under slavery. She sent these recollections to Horace Greeley, publisher of the New-York Tribune, and he published them serially. However, as Jacobs began to write of her sexual exploitation, Greeley decided the narrative was too shocking for his readers and ceased publication.

2. Jacobs's publisher went bankrupt before Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published.

In 1860 Jacobs found a publisher, the Boston firm Thayer & Eldridge, willing to print her narrative. White abolitionist writer Lydia Maria Child edited the book and attested to its truthfulness. However, the publishing house went bankrupt. Friends helped Jacobs self-publish, and in 1861 a British edition came out.

3. Jacobs had a rocky relationship with fellow abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Originally Jacobs hoped that Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, would write her story. Jacobs also asked if her daughter Louisa could accompany Stowe to England. Stowe declined to write Jacobs's narrative; she wanted only to include a brief version in a book of anecdotes called Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. She also declined to answer any further letters from Jacobs.

4. Feminist critics claim Jacobs's slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl differs from men's narratives.

Feminist critics have compared Jacobs's narrative to those by formerly enslaved abolitionist author Frederick Douglass and other men, and many have concluded that they differ in gendered ways. Jacobs tends to focus on community, domesticity, and relationships with family members and bosses, while Douglass stresses the importance of acquiring skill as an orator and using it in the battle against slavery. Both, however, were fierce in their denunciation of slavery and their desire to abolish it.

5. It was illegal for Jacobs to teach her own children to read.

When Jacobs learned to read and write, it was unusual but not illegal. However, in 1830 the North Carolina legislature passed a law that made teaching enslaved people to read and write illegal. The bill stated that a white person found doing so would be fined "not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred," and a free person of color would be whipped. Jacobs's two children were enslaved by law until 1853, so teaching them to read would have been illegal.

6. Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl went almost unnoticed because of the Civil War.

The start of the Civil War overshadowed the publication of Jacobs's narrative, but the Weekly Anglo-African reviewed it. The reviewer stated,

In such volumes as this, the true romance of American life and history is to be found. Patient suffering, heroic daring, untiring zeal, perseverance seemingly unparalleled, and growth from surroundings of degradation and ignorance to education, refinement, and power: all find in these modest pages their simple, yet affecting narrative.

7. For more than a century, readers thought Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a novel.

Because Jacobs used a pseudonym, Linda Brent, readers doubted the book was an autobiography. Many thought the narrative was either a novel or a ghostwritten autobiography. In 1972 a critic wrote, "The story is too melodramatic: miscegenation and cruelty, outraged virtue, unrequited love and planter licentiousness appear on practically every page." However, in 1981 a professor at Pace University, Jean Fagan Yellin, published research showing the work was indeed an autobiography. Proof included letters, newspaper articles, and other historical documents that supported many of the facts in Jacobs's narrative.

8. Jacobs's brother published his own slave narrative.

John Jacobs, Harriet Jacobs's younger brother, was held by Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, Harriet Jacobs's lover and the father of her children. When John Jacobs went with Sawyer to New York in 1841, he sneaked out of their hotel and took a ship to Massachusetts. He stayed there, free, and wrote his own narrative, titled "True Tale of Slavery." A London newspaper serialized John's account the same year Harriet self-published her book.

9. An original poster offering a reward for Jacobs's capture is on display at Yale University.

James Norcom, the father of the slaveholder of Harriet Jacobs, paid for a poster offering a $100 award for her capture. One of these posters is part of the Harriet Jacobs Collection of writings and letters and can be viewed at Yale University in Connecticut.

10. Jacobs's sense of shame almost kept her from writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

According to Jacobs's biographer, Jean Fagan Yellin, Jacobs felt great shame at being an unwed mother—even though enslaved women were not allowed legally to marry. When friends first started urging her to write about her experiences, she responded that she was not a writer and that her life was shameful and should not be made public. But after publishing her book, she ended up "a completely self-respecting woman, not just respected by others."

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