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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Activities: Author Activities

Harriet Jacobs - Teaching Tips

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  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl did not receive a great deal of critical attention until the late twentieth century, mostly because modern scholars had doubts about its authenticity and the conditions of its authorship. For many years, the book was understood to be a novel written in the guise of a slave narrative or an embellished slave autobiography ghost-written by a white author. Critics often assumed that Lydia Maria Child had composed the narrative, even though she insists in her introduction that her editorial work was limited to "condensation and orderly arrangement." Through extensive research, Jean Fagan Yellin finally offered conclusive proof of Jacobs's authorship of Incidents and the authenticity of the events described in the text. Yellin's 1981 edition of Jacobs's work alerted scholars to its importance and transformed its position within the canon. Once you have provided students with this background information, ask them to consider why Jacobs's authorship was questioned for so long. Why would scholars have found it so difficult to believe that a black woman raised in slavery could have written this book? What qualities make the narrative seem fictional?

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl closes with Jacobs's reflections on the state of her domestic life after freedom: "Reader, my story ends with freedom; not, in the usual way, with marriage. . . . The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble. I wish it for my children's sake far more than for my own." Here, the narrative is clearly appealing to a readership of free, white women who would sympathize with this yearning for domestic stability, for "home and hearth." At the same time, this passage challenges the conventions of sentimental discourse by juxtaposing "freedom" and "marriage" in complex ways, both exposing domestic ideals as available only to the privileged and hinting that freedom is perhaps a preferable alternative to the patriarchal institution of marriage. You might use this passage to initiate a discussion of Jacobs's appropriations and revisions of the nineteenth-century ideology of domesticity and sentimentality.

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