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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Harriet Ann Jacobs

Harriet Ann Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. At six, after the death of her mother, Jacobs was taken into her mistress’s home and taught to read and to sew. When she was eleven, she was willed to her mistress’s little niece and sent to the nearby Norcom home to live. Her father died the following year. Aside from her younger brother, Jacobs’s closest relative was her remarkable grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a freed woman who ran a bakery in her home. As Jacobs grew into adolescence, her master Dr. James Norcom subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment. To prevent him from forcing her into concubinage, at sixteen Jacobs became involved in a sexual liaison with a white neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. Their son Joseph was born c. 1829–1830, and their daughter Louisa Matilda in 1833.

Jacobs was determined to free her children. When she was twenty-one, she again refused to become Dr. Norcom’s concubine and was punished by being sent out to a plantation. Then, learning that Dr. Norcom planned to take the children from her grandmother’s care, she decided to run away to save them from becoming plantation slaves. Reasoning that Norcom would sell the children if she were gone, she hid with sympathetic black and white neighbors. As she had hoped, Norcom sold the children to their father, who permitted them to continue to stay with her grandmother. But Norcom’s zealous efforts to find her, and her grandmother’s fear that she would be caught and returned in chains—as an uncle had been—combined to keep her in Edenton. For almost seven years, Jacobs hid in a tiny attic crawlspace in her grandmother’s house. She spent her days reading the Bible, sewing clothes for her children, and planning ways to free them all.

In 1842, Jacobs escaped north, was reunited with her daughter (who had been sent to Brooklyn), and found work in New York in the home of the litterateur Nathaniel Parker Willis. She arranged for her son to be sent to her brother, John S. Jacobs, who had escaped from slavery and become an abolitionist lecturer. In 1849, Jacobs joined him in Rochester, New York, to run the local Anti-Slavery Reading Room. In Rochester, she became part of a circle of anti-slavery feminists. Amy Post, who had attended the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls and played a major role in the follow-up Rochester meeting, became Jacobs’s friend. Post urged Jacobs to write her life story as a weapon in the struggle against chattel slavery.

After passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Jacobs returned to her job with the Willis family. In New York, the Norcoms repeatedly attempted to catch her, and in 1852, Mrs. Willis bought Jacobs’s freedom. Although glad to be free, Jacobs had objected to being bought, and she wrote to Post, “I was robbed of my victory.” Early the next year, she was struggling with the idea of writing her story: “since I have no fear of my name coming before those whom I have lived in dread of I cannot be happy without trying to be useful in some way.” After an abortive effort to involve as an amanuensis Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin had become a bestseller, Jacobs began writing her own life story. She finished her book in 1858, but could not find a publisher. Then in 1861, a firm agreed to get it out if the well-known writer and editor Lydia Maria Child would supply a preface. Child agreed, but the publisher went bankrupt, and Incidents was finally privately printed early in 1861. The book was well reviewed in the African American press and in reform newspapers; an English edition appeared the following year.

Like other abolitionists, Jacobs eagerly involved herself in the effort to transform the developing Civil War into a war of emancipation. In 1862, she left New York to do relief work among the “contraband” (slaves who escaped to the Union army). Jacobs raised money for southern blacks, using the celebrity she had won among reformers as the author of Incidents. For the next six years she served in Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia, as an “agent” of Philadelphia and New York Quakers. She wrote her 1867 letter to Ednah Dow Cheney, Secretary of the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, while visiting Reconstruction Edenton. After 1868, Jacobs returned north. She spent her last years with her daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C.

In letters to Amy Post, Jacobs expressed the conflict she felt about revealing her life story. To write a book politicizing the sexual exploitation of female slaves, she would have to expose her own sexual history and reveal herself an unwed mother. Ultimately, she created an alter-ego, Linda Brent, who narrates her history in the first person. In and through Brent’s narrative of her experiences in slavery as a sexual object and as a mother, Harriet Jacobs moved her book beyond the limits of genteel nineteenth-century discourse.

Incidents is unique among slave narratives in its double thrust: it is at once the first-person tale of a heroic mother who rescues her children from slavery, and the first-person confession of a “fallen woman.” Distinctive discourses express these double themes. When writing as a triumphant slave mother, Jacobs’s narrator recounts precise details and uses language directly; when confessing her sexual history, however, she presents herself as a repentant supplicant, omitting specifics and using the elevated vocabulary, elaborate sentence structures,  and mannered prose associated with the popular fiction of the period. But this narrator does not present herself as the passive victim of the seduction novel. On the contrary. Linda Brent takes responsibility for her mistakes, as well as for her triumphs.

Telling the story of her struggle for freedom, Jacobs’s narrator locates herself within a densely patterned social context. In contrast to male-authored slave narratives which like Frederick Douglass’s Narrative characteristically focused on a lone protagonist struggling against an unjust society, Incidents presents a protagonist enmeshed in family relationships who recounts her efforts to achieve freedom for herself and her children within the context of the struggle for freedom of an entire black community. In Linda Brent, Jacobs created a narrator with a voice that is new in African American literature, in women’s literature, and in American literature.

Both the preface that Jacobs signed as Linda Brent and the introduction her editor Lydia Maria Child supplied, make clear that Incidents was written for an audience of free white women, and that its purpose was to involve these women in political action against the institution of chattel slavery and the ideology of white racism. On one level, Incidents is a literary expression of the struggle of black and white abolitionists against slavery and white racism, and the attempt of nineteenth-century black and white feminists to move women to act collectively in the public sphere. On another, it is one woman’s effort “to give a true and just account of my own life in Slavery.”
Jean Fagan Yellin
Pace University

In the Heath Anthology
Harriet Jacobs to Ednah Dow Cheney, April 25, 1867 (1867)
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
      Chapter I: "Childhood" (1861)
      Chapter VI: "The Jealous Mistress" (1861)
      Chapter X: "A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girls Life" (1861)
      Chapter XLI: "Free at Last" (1861)
      Chapter XVI: "Scenes at the Plantation" (1861)
      Chapter XXI: "The Loophole of Retreat" (1861)

Other Works

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Full-text version including scanned images, glossary, and timeline.

Africans in America
Photos, letters, and the complete text of the runaway notice for Jacobs.

Harriet Ann Jacobs
A brief biography with an excerpt from Jacobs' autobiography.

Harriet Ann Jacobs
A substantive resource with an introduction to her life and writings, a chronology, and three letters by and to Jacobs.

Women Writers of Color
Brief biography and a bibliography of secondary resources.

Secondary Sources

William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, 1986

Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood, 1987

Frances Smith Foster, Written by Herself: Literary Production of African-American Women, 1746-1892, 1993

Deborah M. Garfield and Rafia Zafar, eds., Harriet Jacobs and "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl": New Critical Essays, 1996

Dana D. Nelson, The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature, 1638-1867, 1992

Carla Petersen, "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880), 1995

Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative, 1988

Mary Helen Washington, "Meditations on History: The Slave Narrative of Linda Brent," Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960, 1987

Jean Fagan Yellin, "Introduction," Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, 1987