Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Study Guide

Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, stands as one of the great slave narratives, in the company of Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (1789). The work was edited and has an introduction by the famous abolitionist Lydia Maria Child; for many years Child was assumed to be the author of the work. In the 1970s the scholar Jean Fagan Yellin was able to verify that the work was not fictitious and was indeed written by Jacobs herself. It is the first published narrative written by a female former slave.

In Incidents, Jacobs recounts her childhood and young adulthood as a slave; her escape from the persecution of her lascivious master Dr. James Norcom (renamed Dr. Flint in the book); years of hiding in a small space in her grandmother's shed; her travels to the north and her residence there; and her eventual freedom.

The book was written from 1853 to 1858 while Jacobs worked at the Hudson River home of Nathaniel Parker Willis (Mr. Bruce in the book). She wrote it in secret, unsure of whether or not her employer would approve. Her daughter Louisa recopied the text when it was complete and standardized the spelling and punctuation. She took the manuscript to England to engage a publisher but did not succeed. Another firm in America, Phillips and Samson, agreed to publish it, but the company went bankrupt before the publication date. Finally, a new firm in Boston, Thayer and Eldridge, took on the project and Child was secured as the editor. This firm also went under after it had stereotyped but not yet printed the book. Jacobs bought the plates and published it herself using a Boston printer; she was aided by Child in publishing and promotion. The book appeared in Boston in January of 1861 with the title LINDA: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, seven years concealed in Slavery, Written by Herself; Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent and changed the names of all parties described.

Like Douglass and Equiano's works, it was important for the author to establish her credentials and her veracity. Child's introduction, as well as a preface by Jacobs, assures the reader that the events of the story are real and unembellished, and that it has been verified by a reputable source. Unlike the narrative of Sojourner Truth, for example, which was dictated to an amanuensis, Jacobs actually wrote the work herself.

Jacobs uses the style of the sentimental novel, which was exceedingly popular in the 19th century, particularly with the white middle class women who were her target audience. This type of novel usually featured a young heroine up against powerful forces that threatened her moral and spiritual character; this young woman either perished or surmounted these difficulties through virtue, faith, and fortitude. In Incidents, Jacobs is that young woman, a slave who desires to live a virtuous life and laments the ways in which slave women were made aware of the world at far too young an age. She fends off the lecherous attention of Dr. Flint, and, even though she has two children by a man to whom she is not married, she feels that she had no other choice and counsels her readers not to subject enslaved and free women to the same moral code.

Jacobs's narrative is also a recounting of historical events. It features discussions of Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. It lays bare the hypocrisy of some northerners, who were just as prejudicial and discriminatory as some of their southern counterparts. The work is also, of course, a memoir. That form of autobiography is looser with the truth, which is filtered through imagination a bit more. There are multiple passages of dialogue in the text that Jacobs could not have been privy to; it is also unlikely that her memory was good enough to recall the myriad details included. A memoir's significance is often that it claims to speak for the disenfranchised and bears witness to man's inhumanity to man. Harriet speaks on behalf of her sisters in bondage, and calls upon northern women to recognize and take action against the "peculiar institution" known as slavery.

Incidents was relatively obscure in the years after it was published. It received a few positive reviews and was anthologized by Child in her Freedmen's Book of 1862, but it generally attracted little attention. After Yellin established that it was indeed the work of Jacobs, it became a mainstay in college courses on slavery, American letters, and women's studies and ethnic studies. It has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. Its themes of women's rights and women's sexuality, the strong ties of family and loyalty among slaves, and the intersection of politics, race, and culture have resonated in the contemporary works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, among others.