Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl initially received favorable reviews, but it quickly lost attention due to the start of the Civil War. After the war ended, readers who discovered the work were confused as to the identity of the author; because of the use of the pseudonym, some thought that the author was Lydia Maria Child, or abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book was accepted as a novel.
Interest in the book revived during the 1970s and 1980s, under the influence of renewed emphasis on minority and women's rights and culture. Historian John Blassingame argued at the time, however, that Jacobs' novel was not an authentic work by a former slave because it "did not conform to the guidelines of representativeness", noting that it differed from other slave narratives. Since then other historians and critics have recognized that Jacobs was approaching the issues from a different viewpoint than did the mostly male authors of other narratives. They have noted how Jacobs differed her approach to present her view as a black woman in slavery.
Jean Fagan Yellin began researching the book in this period. She documented that Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who later was freed, was the real author. She also annotated and documented events and people in the novel as related to those in Harriet's life, showing the autobiographical basis of the work.