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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813-1897)

[6832] Sandy Point Plantation, Edenton, North Carolina (1933-40), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, NC21-EDET.V,3-1].

Born into slavery in North Carolina, Harriet Ann Jacobs was raised both by her free black grandmother and by a white mistress who taught her to read. Upon her mistress’s death, Jacobs was willed to Mary Matilda Norcom and sent to live in her household. Mary’s father, the prominent physician Dr. James Norcom, soon began making unwelcome sexual advances toward Jacobs, preying on her vulnerability as a slave. Rather than submit to her master, Jacobs chose to become involved with Samuel Sawyer, a white, slave-holding neighbor, with whom she had two children. In 1835, Dr. Norcom, angry at what he viewed as Jacobs’s offenses against him, separated her from her children and sent her to work on a plantation in nearby Auburn. Jacobs soon escaped from the plantation but was unable to flee North Carolina. Instead, she was forced to hide in a cramped attic crawlspace in her grandmother’s house for nearly seven years, keeping secret watch over her children. In 1842, Jacobs finally managed to escape to the North. Once there, she arranged for her children’s escape as well.

In New York, Jacobs worked as a nursemaid in the home of the popular writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis. In 1849, she moved to Rochester to work in the Anti-Slavery Reading Room, where she got to know many prominent abolitionists (including Frederick Douglass) and familiarized herself with anti-slavery literature and feminism in the process. Jacobs eventually determined that she should publicize her own story of exploitation and escape in order to raise public awareness about the condition of women held in slavery. She initially approached Harriet Beecher Stowe, the celebrated author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, about writing her narrative, but ultimately Jacobs decided to compose her history herself. Adopting the pseudonym “Linda Brent” and disguising the names of the other characters in her story, she used her autobiographical narrative to reflect on the sexual harassment and psychological abuse that were so often the lot of the female slave. Because the book departed from the conventions of male-centered slave narratives and also challenged genteel notions of propriety by focusing on issues of sexuality, Jacobs found it difficult to find a publisher. Finally, a Boston firm agreed to publish the manuscript provided Jacobs could get Lydia Maria Child to write an introduction and act as editor. Child agreed to the project and, with the help of her introduction and minor editorial contributions, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861.

Jacobs’s history is unique among slave narratives for its focus on the experiences of women, its treatment of sexual exploitation, its emphasis on family life and maternal values, and its self-conscious appeal to an audience of white, female readers. Incidents draws on the conventions of both seduction novels and domestic fiction–two popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimental literary forms. The book recounts Jacobs’s efforts to maintain her virtue against her master’s attempted seduction and celebrates family relationships and domestic ideals of femininity. Jacobs’s deployment of sentimental discourse also works to problematize nineteenth-century notions of proper womanhood and exposes the extent to which such ideals were dependent upon economic and racial distinctions. As her story makes clear, the pressures and abuses enslaved black women faced could make it impossible for them to uphold bourgeois standards of virginity and motherhood. Relegated to the status of property, Jacobs faced an enormous struggle in her attempts to control her own sexuality, home life, and family relationships.

Jacobs was finally freed from slavery in 1853, when her New York employer’s wife, Cornelia Willis, bought her from the Norcom family for three hundred dollars and then emancipated her. In her narrative, Jacobs notes both her gratitude to her employer and her discomfort with being purchased. Making use of her freedom, she remained active in the anti-slavery cause and did relief work among black refugees from the South during and after the Civil War. Jacobs died while living with her daughter in Washington, D.C.

Teaching Tips

  • 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.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What strategies does Jacobs adopt in her efforts to resist her master? How does she assert her rights over her own body and her children? How does she deal with the racism she encounters once she has escaped to the North?
  2. Comprehension: How do Jacobs’s relationships with family members and her children influence the decisions she makes?
  3. Comprehension: Draw a diagram of the attic Jacobs hid in for seven years. How does your picture compare to Jacobs’s description of the “loophole” in which she lived? What kinds of physical and emotional challenges would living in such enclosed quarters pose for an individual?
  4. Context: How does Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl compare to Frederick Douglass’s narrative? What goals, values, and strategies do Jacobs and Douglass have in common? In what respects do they differ?
  5. Context: How does Jacobs’s text both appropriate and challenge conventions of domesticity and white ideals of femininity? What techniques does she adopt from sentimental novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin? How does her text implicitly critique domestic ideals?
  6. Exploration: Until the early 1980s, many scholars believed that Jacobs’s narrative was a fictional rather than an autobiographical account (a theory that has subsequently been dismissed after conclusive evidence documenting Jacobs’s life came to light). Why do you think critics read this text as a novel? How does it participate in novelistic conventions? How does our understanding of the text change once we know that it was really “written by herself,” as the subtitle claims?

Selected Archive Items

[1055] W. M. Merrick, Map of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad (1865),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
This period map of Washington, DC, shows how the city looked at the end of the Civil War.

[6442] Keith White, Harriet Jacobs (1994),
courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.
A rendering of the only known photograph of Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs’s account of her sexual exploitation as a slave opened her up to attacks on her morality. This led her to publish under the pseudonym Linda Brent and may have led her to avoid being photographed.

[6832] Sandy Point Plantation, Edenton, North Carolina (1933-40),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey [HABS, NC21-EDET.V,3-1].
This nineteenth-century southern home is similar in style to the house of Harriet Jacobs’s owner, Dr. James Norcom. Well-to-do slave-owning whites who were not part of the wealthiest planter class often built such houses.

[7223] Nina Baym, Interview: “Gender and Sexual Difference” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Baym, professor of English at the University of Illinois, is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature and author of American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6