Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Historical context

After being printed in serial form in the New-York Tribune, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published as a complete work in 1861.[4] Its publication was soon overshadowed by the start of the Civil War, although it attracted some attention as it addressed themes highlighted by the abolitionist movement.

Abolitionist works

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl addressed some issues earlier raised in works by white abolitionists, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), who had artfully combined the genres of slave narratives and sentimental novels.[1] Stowe based her novel on several slave narratives.

While Stowe wrote about characters who struggle through lives of slavery.,[5] Jacobs' work presents an authentic account of one black woman's girlhood and adolescence navigating the complex terrain of male-chauvinist slave-based, white-supremacist civilization. Stowe explores the far-reaching influence of chattel slavery, saying that everyone in the United States was implicated in its cycle, including Southern women, people living in the North, and people who did not own slaves. The book aroused anti-slavery support in the North and resistance in the South; meanwhile, several anti-Tom novels were published by Southern authors who presented a more benevolent view of plantation slavery. President Abraham Lincoln credited Stowe's work with contributing to the start of the Civil War.[6]

Jacobs had initially sought Stowe's help, wanting to dictate her story to her. Instead Stowe proposed to include her account in The Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) and sent it to Mrs. Willis for verification.[1] Jacobs resented this patronizing detour as a betrayal, as Stowe had thereby revealed the origin of her children, whose circumstances of birth she had never discussed with Mrs. Willis. This incident contributed to Jacobs' deciding to write her story on her own. On her behalf, Mrs. Willis told Stowe of Jacobs' plan, but Stowe never responded again.[1]

Cult of True Womanhood

In the antebellum period, the Cult of True Womanhood was prevalent among upper and middle-class white women. This set of ideals, as described by Barbara Welter, asserted that all women possessed (or should possess) the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.[7] Venetria K. Patton explains that Jacobs and Harriet E. Wilson, who wrote Our Nig, reconfigured the genres of slave narrative and sentimental novel, claiming the titles of "woman and mother" for black females, and suggesting that society's definition of womanhood was too narrow.[1] They argued and "remodeled" Stowe's descriptions of black maternity.[8]

They also showed that the institution of slavery made it impossible for African-American women to control their virtue, as they were subject to the social and economic power of men.[9] Jacobs showed that slave women had a different experience of motherhood but had strong feelings as mothers despite the constraints of their position.[10]

Jacobs was clearly aware of the womanly virtues, as she referred to them as a means to appeal to female abolitionists to spur them into action to help protect enslaved black women and their children. In the novel, she explains life events that prevent Linda Brent from practicing these values, although she wants to. For example, as she cannot have a home of her own for her family, she cannot practice domestic virtues.

Slavery and the Civil War

When Jacobs' novel was finally published, the Civil War had started, and the novel was buried beneath news of the war.[11] Jacobs had wanted to appeal to abolitionists and particularly to gain the support of white affluent middle-class women on behalf of female slaves.

Her book also addresses the influence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 on people in the North as well as the South. This act required law enforcement and private citizens in free states to cooperate in the capture and return of fugitive slaves to their masters, increasing penalties for interference. It made it a felony for anybody who found a refugee slave not to return the slave to his or her owner, but abolitionists and activists on the Underground Railroad continued to aid slaves through the 1850s.


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