Essay on Traditions in Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Though considerable effort has been made to classify Harriet Ann Jacobs'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself as another example of the typical slave narrative, these efforts have in large part failed. Narrow adherence to this belief limits real appreciation of the text's depth and enables only partial understanding of the author herself Jacobs's story is her own, political yes, but personal as well. Although she does draw from the genre of her people, the slave narrative, to give life and limb to her appeal for the eradication of slavery in America, she simultaneously threads a captivity narrative, a romance, and a seduction novel through the text as well.  

Initially, the blurring of genre lines might appear inconsistent, or contrary to the unity of the work. However, further reflection reveals this "muddying" is in fact Incidents' strength. By fashioning her narrative like a seduction novel Jacobs was assured her story would be read by the northern female readers she sought to champion. The idea of a captive in a foreign land most closely resembled the author's own understanding of her life in bondage. And finally, the qualities of a romance render Jacobs' tale an unmistakable "good read." Consequently, Harriet Ann Jacobs is much more than just an additional voice among mid-nineteenth century abolitionist banter, she is an astute author with a story altogether her own. 

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In order to appreciate how Incidents reaches beyond the slave narrative genre, one must first understand how it is perfectly in synch. The slave narrative, popularized between 1840 and 1865 largely due to the creative efforts of Frederick Douglass, was an important element of the anti-slavery movement before, during, and after the Civil War. Scholar William Andrews reports, "Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, autobiographies of former slaves dominated the Afro-American narrative tradition. Approximately sixty-five American slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form before 1865" (Andrews 78). Suffice it to say, the number is astounding, especially considering the minimal literacy rate among slaves, not to mention the heightened danger posed to an author after a narrative's publication. But Jacobs and others understood the need for first-hand accounts of the horror. Thus, they took the pen in hand to do their part in strengthening the abolitionist movement. Their motive being to persuade, a particular style developed among these autobiographers, one proven successful over time in winning converts to their cause. It is by no means an accident then that Incidents includes the typical elements of a slave narrative text.  

For instance, in her deference to the genre Jacobs repeatedly refers to scripture. When she denounces northerners for returning runaways to their southern masters' dens "full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness," she is quoting Matthew 23:37 (Jacobs 2215). Later she mentions Job 3:17-19, "There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor; the servant is free from his master," in support of a decision to bring her children North (Jacobs 2222-2223). When Jacobs finally reaches the North, a scripture- filled letter from her grandmother demonstrates the family's piety. And again, when Jacobs cannot attend even northern church services without fear of capture, she mockingly draws from Matthew 7:12 saying, "Will the preachers take for their text, 'Proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that are bound'? or will they preach from the text, "Do unto others as yet would they should do unto you'?" (Jacobs 2230). These and other scriptural references line up, firing holes into southern piety and reminding readers that slave and free alike worship the same God as Lord.  

Common also among the slave narratives are grotesque scenes of violence, emphasizing the barbarity of slavery as an institution. Narratives are naturally written in first person, with frequent asides from the author criticizing slavery and its sponsors. Often narrators refer to slaveholders specifically hoping to validate accounts with verifiable evidence. In the way of theme, scholar Joanne M. Braxton writes:  

The prevalent themes of the genre include the deprivation of food, clothing, and shelter, the desire for instruction (frequently for religious instruction, which is thwarted), physical brutality, the corruption of families (usually white), the separation of families (usually black), the exploitation of slave workers and, in some narratives, especially those written by women, abuse of the sexuality and reproductive powers of the slave woman. (Braxton 380) 

With these criteria in mind, Jacobs' narrative quickly aligns with the genre.  

Though writing under the alias "Linda Brent", Jacobs does write in first person. Often she draws back from the action to moralize about the "peculiar institution" as a whole. At times, these asides work to "confirm the worst" for the reader, as when Jacobs explains the behavior of newlywed white brides in the South:  

Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation; and it is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing them into the slavetrader's hands as soon as possible and thus getting them out of their sight. (Jacobs 2215-2216)  

At other times, Jacobs clarifies what might lead to confusion, or justifies her motives for the "virtuous" reader. Such is the case when she describes her sexual relationship with Mr. Sands. The author, fully aware that her readers must morally condemn promiscuity and yet refusing to alienate them entirely, qualifies her actions with a disclaimer:  

Pity me, and pardon me, 0 virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another ... I know I did wrong ... Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others. (Jacobs 2218)  

As in other slave narratives, asides assure Jacobs she will not lose readership due to confusion or alienation, while simultaneously providing her with a forum for the open expression of her opinions.  

In keeping with a slave narrative's use of sensationalism, Jacobs' account is rich with terror. She focuses particularly on the psychological trauma a slave endures. From childhood Jacobs must ward off the sexual advances of her master, Dr. Flint, "though a razor was often held to my throat to force me to change this line of policy" (Jacobs 2213). Similarly, Incidents records many gruesome moments of vulnerability and isolation as Jacobs awaits her escape to the North. Ultimately, she endures seven years in a small garret of her grandmother's attic waiting for a safe opportunity to flee. Jacobs writes:  

To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the house. The air was stifling; the darkness total . . . The rats and mice ran over my bed ... for weeks I was tormented by hundreds of little-red insects ... the heat of my den was intense. . Often I was obliged to lie in bed all day to keep comfortable; but with all of my precautions, my shoulders and my feet were frostbitten. (Jacobs 2226-2227)  

Though these ghastly memories require little fabrication, Jacobs' decision to include them is in every sense deliberate. Rather than let the broken past find a grave, slave narrators gave these moments new life in an effort to spark reformative action. 

These and other symmetries between Jacobs' story and the slave narrative genre continue to fall in line. Without doubt, Incidents is a necessary member of any "slave narrative" canon. However, there is more to Jacobs' work, further dimensions to her brilliance. For example, Incidents is not merely sensational to evoke the compassion of the reader, but because the author was catering to women's literary preferences of the day. Her intentions being first and always political, Jacobs was willing to mold her story into whatever mode necessary to secure readership. Therefore, when authors like Samuel Richardson were producing runaway bestsellers such as Pamela andClarissa, tales that successfully satisfied "the conscientious, middle class woman who made the slave's cause her own" that Jacobs was looking to attract, she naturally cashed in (Doherty 82).  

Scholar Thomas Doherty explains, "Jacobs ingeniously inducts 'women's literature' into the cause of women's politics in her tale of sex-determined destiny under slavery. Seldom has an American writer so ably put popular art to a polemic purpose" (80). In other words, by shaping her story in the mode of seduction fiction Jacobs successfully attracted her desired audience. And why not, for this genre, defined by Leslie Fiedler as "a prose narrative in which Seducer and Pure Maiden were brought face to face in ritual combat destined to end in marriage or death," naturally paralleled Jacobs' real life. In the seduction novel, a poor heroine is left alone to ward off the unwelcome sexual advances from an older, upper class aggressor. He is a crude villain, course in speech and opting for psychological torment rather than physical pillage of his victim. In essence, he waits for her to "give" freely to him, finding pleasure in the disturbed challenge.  

Accordingly, Jacobs' Dr. Flint, "whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night seeking whom to devour," oppresses her from early puberty. She charts their relationship: 

When I succeeded in avoiding opportunities for him to talk to me at home, I was ordered to come to his office, to do some errand. When there, I was obliged to stand and listen to such language as he saw fit to address to me. ... He threatened me with death, with worse than death, if I made complaint ... he talked of his intention to give me a home of my own, and to make a lady of me . . . I was determined that the master, whom I hated and loathed, who had blighted the prospects of my youth, and made my life a desert, should not, after my long struggle with him, succeed at last in trampling his victim under his feet. I would do any thing, every thing, for the sake of defeating him. (Jacobs 2211-2212 & 2216)  

However, the similarities do have their limits, for seduction fictions end either in the heroic death of the maiden, or in marriage to an eventually redeemed seducer. Marriage between Jacobs and Flint would have been not only undesirable for Jacobs, but illegal as well. Similarly, fate, providence, or both intervene before Incidents can end in death. But in spite of these limitations, Incidents still makes successful strides toward incitation of the seduction genre of the period.  

This step prompts some to call Incidents "the Pamela of the slave narrative" (Doherty 79). And while the label might seem a bit derogatory at first, there is another incite to consider. For instance, Doherty celebrates Incidents position. He says, "By couching her personal narrative in the familiar terms of formula fiction, she appropriated its popularity without undercutting its presumptions." He further argues, "The skillful slave narrator drew on the conventions of popular literature to render more movingly the stock situations-family separations, assaults on virtues, and unrequited love-that were to him only too real" (Doherty 83). In essence, what could easily be passed-off as mindless incitation of melodramatic prose is, in fact, the very genius of Jacobs' work. Her life, surreal but true, neatly conformed to the current reader preference. Quick to find a successful angle, Jacobs put popular fiction to good use.  

This insight provides a glimpse into Jacobs the woman. She was obviously clever, able to adapt when needed. Her thriftiness as an author validates her remarkable claims in the text. Not just anyone could spend seven years in an attic alone. The assertion is indeed almost preposterous until weighed against Jacobs' life as a whole. Even in her youth she outsmarts the older Dr. Flint, lying with another man to maintain some shred of self-autonomy. She learns to read and write, later using these sills to send Dr. Flint counterfeit notes "from the North," when really she lies sheltered in his own backyard. Jacobs challenges the system fighting to silence her, bravely publishing her story though it put her life in added danger. In effect, she was a woman with a mission skilled in the art of survival. And yet, there are moments when the pain and heartache are only too evident. And while this is in no way a fault, another genre gently does threads its fibers across Incidents--that of the captivity narrative.  

A natural precursor to the slave narrative, the captivity narrative pits a lone survivor against a group of pressing foes. Like Mary Rowlandson's A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Jacobs sees herself under the authority of a bestial group. The slaveholders' inability to recognize fundamental human values strips them of any right to respect. Though the oppressor may be pitied, he or she is never excused. This is seen in Jacobs' introduction of Mrs. Flint:  

She was not a very refined woman and had not much control over her passions. I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred; and I knew I could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the circumstances in which I was placed. I could not blame her. Slaveholders' wives feel as other women would under similar circumstances ... but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband's perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed. (Jacobs 2214)  

Though subtle, the effect of dehumanization is real. Jacobs is in essence saying: "Surprisingly, this woman felt similar to what another human being would feel, though her feelings do not count for much because they are completely one-sided. Her pity extends no further than herself" Consequently, sympathy is reserved for the narrator.  

However, in her tact, Jacobs does provide southerners with one "out," thus straying from the typical captivity narrative. She basically blames the institution of slavery more than its patrons for the cruelty. She cannot risk offending her northern readers by out-and-out condemning their southern sisters. Hence, Jacobs often posits the slaveholders as victims of the system as well. Slavery has drawn out the very vilest part of their nature, thus perverting their ability to act with compassion. Similarly, she admits there are a few exceptions to this rule. The author states, "Though this bad institution deadens the moral sense, even in white women, to a fearful extent, it is not altogether extinct" (Jacobs 2216). But there is some question as to whether or not Jacobs was completely sincere in providing even this small excuse for slaveholder behavior. She may have felt compelled to do so, willing to feign allowances so as not to offend.  

Survival is another key element of the captivity narrative. Jacobs' demonstrates again and again her ability to carve an existence out of nothing. When confined in the attic she "bored three rows of holes ... I thus succeeded in making one hole about an inch long and an inch broad. I sat by it in till late into the night, to enjoy the little whiff of air that floated in" (Jacobs 2226). Likewise, captivity narratives demand a journey from bondage to freedom. Jacobs' journey north parallels this passage as she moves from captivity to independence. Once "free," memories are explored and transcribed. Thus, they become life lessons for others. Jacobs concludes her own story: "It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could." But she is calling others to action because "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" (Jacobs 2232-2233). It is in the confines of the captivity genre that Jacobs' most aptly conveys her message: this fugitive is still in need of a home.  

Finally, as readers become invested in her life, Jacobs'Incidents proves not only persuasive, but moving. To put it plainly, she is a really good storyteller, using many of the traditional modes of a romance in her text. As a heroine, she captivates us. Scholar Janice B. Daniel confirms, "her quest is the same search for identity as that of the traditional hero of romance" (Daniel 7). As in romance, Jacobs journey begins when she starts to question her identity. After the death of her parents and the passing away of her first mistress, Jacobs must confront the fact that she is a slave. "I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away," states the author (Jacobs 2209). Until then, she had never questioned her identity, for it had never before been threatened. Now, she must carve out who she is in a world refusing to give her any say.  

Soon, she encounters the "formidable dragon or monster of the romance" that will obstruct her quest for identity. This, of course, is Dr. Flint (Daniel 8). But he in fact may be only the henchman of the real demon, slavery itself. As a result, Jacobs feels at war on every side, battling not only the institution that holds her captive, but an older man threatening her sexual purity as well. "Consequently, in Brent's 'quest' for identity as a free person she must conquer the menacing monster however it materializes," states Daniel (8). But the self-reliant romance hero will boldly engage the enemy. Jacobs does this when she sleeps with Sands rather than succumb to Flint and when she decides to free her children from slavery. This initiates the next key element of a romance, the flight.  

Critic Northrop Frye explains the flight must involve danger and disguise, as the hero goes through a series of descent into places where he or she is "isolated, immobile, and almost mechanical in behavior" (Daniel 9). For Jacobs, this period occurs during the seven years she spends in her grandmother's attic, a time of great anticipation and risk. Jacobs is alone forced to play the part of a silent observer. During this time the necessary oracle, or "voice of a god-like figure behind the action who expresses his will and speaks of the ultimate outcome," emerges in the figure of Jacobs' grandmother (Daniel 10). She is her granddaughter's moral guide, providing advice and protection.  

Finally, the time of ascent begins, and Jacobs once again mobilizes. She flees to Philadelphia, and though never legally free, is rid of the most of the restrictions plaguing her in the South. There is but one hurdle left, the unjust trial. She must continue to fight the institution of slavery and bargain for her children. Even though she is now "free," she continues to live in fear of recapture, which significantly limits her activity. Even still, as Daniel points out, "Linda Brent has indeed improved her condition by affirming her identity as a free human being, and her quest is parallel to that of the traditional romance hero" (Daniel I 1). And so, the "romance" ends as all romances do, with a cyclical return to the place of origin. Jacobs eventually revisits the home of her childhood and captivity. Thus she asserts a final independence over it and separation from its chains.  

Looking for a conduit in which "African American women could reach their Anglo sisters," Jacobs penned a memorable autobiography, spanning genre lines and sparking interest (Daniel 12). Her strength comes not in mastery of one tradition, but of many. Foremost among these are the captivity narrative, the seduction novel, the slave narrative and the romance. Indeed, this versatility reveals its author's motives for composition. Eager to incite reform, she took the best of many traditions and wove a story pleasing but true. Daniels says, "Because this narrative of 'incidents' is not a fictional account does not prevent it from revealing similarities to a fictional genre and to a fictional hero prototype. After all, according to her friend Amy Post, Jacobs was operating in a society that sanctioned laws and customs which make the experiences of the present more strange than any fiction" (Daniels 12). Jacobs was then perhaps a bit too hard on herself when she said, "You shall have truth but not talent." For in the end she undoubtedly realizes her goal "to tell you (not) what I have heard but what I have seen ... and what I have suffered ... and if there is any sympathy to give ... let it be to the thousands ... of Slave Mothers that are still in bondage ... let it plead for their helpless children" (Doherty 79 & Jacobs 2206). Jacobs successfully demonstrates the power of the pen when an author is willing to leave behind conventions and explore a medley of traditions. 

Works Cited

Braxton, Joanne M. "Harriet Jacobs' 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl': The Re-Definition of the Slave Narrative Genre."  The Massachusetts Review 25.2 (Summer 1986): 379-387.

Daniels, Janice B. "A New Kind of Hero: Harriet Jacobs' 'Incidents."' The Southern Quarterly 35.3 (1997): 7-12.

Doherty, Thomas. "Harriet Jacobs' Narrative Strategies: 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl."' Southern Literary Journal 19.1 (1986): 79-91. 

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The Harper American Literature, Volume I.  2nd ed. Ed. Donald McQuade et al. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.   2206-2233.



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