Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Harriet A. Jacobs's slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself is a first-person account of Jacobs's pseudonymous narrator “Linda Brent.” Her story is extremely carefully shaped, and although it changes names and omits dates and places, Jacobs's “Linda” transforms the slave narrative by including not only elements of the male-authored narrative but also elements of the captivity narrative and of domestic fiction. Focusing on the forbidden topic of a woman's sexual history in slavery, Linda presents herself as both a “fallen woman” and as a “heroic mother.” In doing so she advances a fundamental critique of the nineteenth-century ideology of true womanhood that fostered all such race and gender stereotypes.

Jacobs's Linda writes that although born a slave in the South, she enjoyed a happy childhood with her family until, when she was six, her mother died. Taken in by her mistress, she was taught to read and sew. In adolescence she was moved into the nearby home of the lecherous Dr. Flint, who subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment. She reveals her sexual involvement with a white neighbor—which she characterizes as a desperate attempt to avoid Flint—and records the birth of her two children. Explaining that Flint's threat to make them plantation slaves prompted her decision to run away in hopes that the children's father would buy and free them, she describes her seven years hiding in town in the space above her grandmother's storeroom. Finally escaping to the North, she writes that she was reunited with her children and met the abolitionists. She ends her book by reporting that when kidnappers followed her to New York and continued to threaten her and her children, Linda's New York employer bought her freedom.

Harriet Jacobs spelled out the conception, composition, and publication of Incidents in letters she wrote to her abolitionist feminist friend, the Quaker Amy Post, between 1853 and 1860. Her first idea was to convince Harriet Beecher Stowe to become her amanuensis. When this failed, she determined to write her story herself. She began in secret and finished a half-dozen years later. Carrying letters of introduction from Boston abolitionists to their British colleagues, she sailed to England to find a publisher. Unsuccessful, she returned home, where, with the help of the African American activist-writer William C. Nell, she met the white abolitionist author Lydia Maria Child, who agreed to act as her editor and agent. In 1860 Child began editing the manuscript, arranged for financial support from abolitionists, and signed a contract with a Boston publisher. When the firm went bankrupt, Jacobs brought out the book herself in January 1861. Incidents was advertised and reviewed in the African American press and in reform publications in the North and in Britain. In 1862, retitled The Deeper Wrong: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, it was published in London by William Tweedie.

Although Jacobs's name was openly connected with the book from the first, its title page names only Child as editor. Perhaps because of this, throughout much of the twentieth century both the authorship and the genre of Incidents were disputed. Since the appearance of the Harvard edition in 1987, however, Incidents has been hailed as the most comprehensive antebellum autobiography by an African American woman.


Subjects: Literature.

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