Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Frontispiece of the first edition
AuthorHarriet Jacobs
GenreSlave narrative
PublisherThayer & Eldridge
Publication date

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself is an autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, a mother and fugitive slave, published in 1861 by L. Maria Child, who edited the book for its author. Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book documents Jacobs's life as a slave and how she gained freedom for herself and for her children. Jacobs contributed to the genre of slave narrative by using the techniques of sentimental novels "to address race and gender issues."[1] She explores the struggles and sexual abuse that female slaves faced as well as their efforts to practice motherhood and protect their children when their children might be sold away.

In the book, Jacobs addresses white Northern women who fail to comprehend the evils of slavery. She makes direct appeals to their humanity to expand their knowledge and influence their thoughts about slavery as an institution.

Jacobs began composing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl after her escape to New York, while living and working at Idlewild, the Hudson River home of writer and publisher Nathaniel Parker Willis.[2]

Boston publishing house Phillips and Samson agreed to print the work in book form if Jacobs could convince Willis or abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe to provide a preface. She refused to ask Willis for help and Stowe never responded to her request. The Phillips and Samson company closed.[3] Jacobs eventually signed an agreement with the Thayer & Eldridge publishing house, and they requested a preface by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who agreed. Child also edited the book, and the company introduced her to Jacobs. The two women remained in contact for much of their remaining lives. Thayer & Eldridge, however, declared bankruptcy before the narrative could be published.

Historical context[edit]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861. Its publication was soon overshadowed by the start of the Civil War, although it attracted some attention as it addressed themes highlighted by the abolitionist movement.

Abolitionist works[edit]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl addressed some issues earlier raised in works by white abolitionists, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), who had artfully combined the genres of slave narratives and sentimental novels.[1] Stowe based her novel on several slave narratives.

While Stowe wrote about characters who struggle through lives of slavery,[4] Jacobs's work presents an authentic account of one black woman's girlhood and adolescence navigating the complex terrain of male chauvinist, slave-based white-supremacist civilization. Stowe explores the far-reaching influence of chattel slavery, saying that everyone in the United States was implicated in its cycle, including Southern women, people living in the North, and people who did not own slaves. The book aroused anti-slavery support in the North and resistance in the South; meanwhile, several anti-Tom novels were published by Southern authors who presented a more benevolent view of plantation slavery. President Abraham Lincoln credited Stowe's work with contributing to the start of the Civil War.[5]

Jacobs had initially sought Stowe's help, wanting to dictate her story to her. Instead, Stowe proposed to include her account in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853) and sent it to Mrs. Willis for verification.[1] Jacobs resented this patronizing detour as a betrayal, as Stowe had thereby revealed the origin of her children whose circumstances of birth she had never discussed with Mrs. Willis. The incident contributed to Jacobs's deciding to write her story on her own. On her behalf, Mrs. Willis told Stowe of Jacobs's plan, but Stowe never responded.[1]

Cult of True Womanhood[edit]

In the antebellum period, the Cult of True Womanhood was prevalent among upper and middle-class white women. This set of ideals, as described by Barbara Welter, asserted that all women possessed (or should possess) the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.[6] Venetria K. Patton explains that Jacobs and Harriet E. Wilson, who wrote Our Nig, reconfigured the genres of slave narrative and sentimental novel, claiming the titles of "woman and mother" for black females, and suggesting that society's definition of womanhood was too narrow.[1] They argued and "remodeled" Stowe's descriptions of black maternity.[7]

They also showed that the institution of slavery made it impossible for African-American women to control their virtue, as they were subject to the social and economic power of men.[8] Jacobs showed that slave women had a different experience of motherhood but had strong feelings as mothers despite the constraints of their position.[9]

Jacobs was clearly aware of the womanly virtues, as she referred to them as a means to appeal to female abolitionists to spur them into action to help protect enslaved black women and their children. In the narrative, she explains life events that prevent Linda Brent from practicing these values, although she wants to. For example, as she cannot have a home of her own for her family, she cannot practice domestic virtues.

Slavery and the Civil War[edit]

When Jacobs's narrative was finally published, the Civil War had started, and it was buried beneath news of the war.[10] Jacobs had wanted to appeal to abolitionists and particularly to gain the support of white, affluent, middle-class women on behalf of female slaves.

Her book also addresses the influence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 on people in the North as well as the South. This act required law enforcement and private citizens in free states to cooperate in the capture and return of fugitive slaves to their owners, increasing penalties for interference. It made it a felony for anybody who found a refugee slave not to return the slave to his or her owner, but abolitionists and activists on the Underground Railroad continued to aid slaves into the 1860s.

Plot summary[edit]

Born into slavery, Linda has happy years as a young child with her brother, parents, and maternal grandmother, who are relatively well-off slaves in good positions. It is not until her mother dies that Linda even begins to understand that she is a slave. At the age of six, she is sent to live in the big house under the extended care of her mother's mistress, who treats her well and teaches her to read. After a few years, this mistress dies and bequeaths Linda to a relative. Her new masters are cruel and neglectful, and Dr. Flint, the father, takes an interest in Linda. He tries to force her into a sexual relationship with him when she comes of age. The girl resists his entreaties and maintains her distance.

Knowing that Flint will do anything to get his way, as a young woman Linda consents to a relationship with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands, hoping he can protect her from Flint. As a result of their relations, Sands and Linda have two mixed-race children: Benjamin, often called Benny, and Ellen. Because they were born to an enslaved mother, they are considered slaves, under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, which had been part of Southern slave law since the 17th century. Linda is ashamed, but she hopes this illegitimate relationship will protect her from assault at the hands of Dr. Flint. Linda also hopes that Flint would become angry enough to sell her to Sands, but he refuses to do so. Instead, he sends Linda to his son's plantation to be broken in as a field hand.

When Linda discovers that Benny and Ellen are also to be sent to the fields, she makes a desperate plan. Escaping to the North with two small children would be nearly impossible. Unwilling either to submit to Dr. Flint's abuse or abandon her family, she runs away and hides in an unused room of a sympathetic white friend. She hopes that Dr. Flint, believing that she has fled to the North, will sell her children rather than risk having them escape as well. Linda is overjoyed when Dr. Flint sells Benny and Ellen to a slave trader who, unbeknownst to him, secretly represents Sands. Promising to free the children one day, Sands sends them to live with Aunt Martha. Fearing discovery, Linda's friends move her hiding place to Aunt Martha's attic, where she becomes physically debilitated by being confined to the tiny space, where she can neither sit nor stand up. Her only pleasure is to watch her children through a tiny peephole. Mr. Sands marries and is elected to Congress. He takes Ellen, his illegitimate child with the enslaved Linda, to Washington, D.C. to be an eventual companion for his newborn daughter; it is at this point that Linda realizes that he may never free their children. Worried that he will eventually sell them, she determines to escape with them to the North. But Dr. Flint continues to hunt for her, and leaving the attic is still too risky.

After seven years in the attic, Linda finally escapes to the North by boat. Benny remains with Aunt Martha. Linda tracks down Ellen, by then nine years old and living in Brooklyn, New York, in the home of Sands's cousin, Mrs. Hobbs. Linda is dismayed to see Ellen is being treated as a slave, since the institution had been abolished in New York. She fears that Mrs. Hobbs will take Ellen back to the South and put her beyond her mother's reach. Linda finds work as a nursemaid for the Bruces, a family in New York City who treat her very kindly.

Learning that Dr. Flint is still in pursuit, Linda flees to Boston, where she is reunited with her son Benny, who had also escaped. Dr. Flint claims that the sales of Benny and Ellen were illegitimate, and Linda is terrified that he will re-enslave her and her children. After a few years, Mrs. Bruce dies. Linda spends some time living with her children in Boston. She spends a year in England caring for Mr. Bruce's daughter, and for the first time in her life enjoys freedom from racial prejudice. When Linda returns to Boston, she sends Ellen to boarding school. Benny moves to California with Linda's brother William, who had also escaped to the North. Mr. Bruce remarries, and Linda takes a position caring for their new baby. Dr. Flint dies, but his daughter, Emily, writes to Linda to claim ownership of the fugitive slave.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is passed by Congress, making Linda and her children extremely vulnerable to capture and re-enslavement, as it requires cooperation by law enforcement and citizens of free states. Emily Flint and her husband, Mr. Dodge, arrive in New York to capture Linda. When the refugee goes into hiding, the new Mrs. Bruce offers to purchase her freedom. At first Linda refuses, unwilling to be bought and sold again, and she makes plans to follow Benny to California. Mrs. Bruce buys Linda's freedom from Flint. Linda is grateful to Mrs. Bruce, but expresses disgust at the institution that required such a transaction. Linda notes that she has not yet realized her dream of making a home with her children.

The book closes with two testimonials to its accuracy, one from Amy Post, a white abolitionist, and the other from George W. Lowther, a black antislavery writer.

Character list[edit]

Linda Brent is Harriet Jacobs, the narrator and protagonist.

Dr. Flint is Dr. James Norcom, Linda's master, enemy and would-be lover.

Aunt Martha is Molly Horniblow, Linda's maternal grandmother and chief ally.

Mrs. Flint is Mary "Maria" Norcom, Linda's mistress and Dr. Flint's wife.

Mr. Sands is Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, Linda's white sexual partner and the father of her children, Benny and Ellen.

William Brent is John S. Jacobs, Linda's brother, to whom she is close.

Emily Flint is Mary Matilda Norcom, Dr. Flint's daughter and Linda's legal owner.

Benny Brent is Joseph Jacobs.

Ellen Brent is Louisa Matilda Jacobs.

Mr. Bruce is Nathaniel Parker Willis.

The second Mrs. Bruce is Cornelia Grinnel Willis.

Critical response[edit]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl initially received favorable reviews, but it quickly lost attention due to the start of the Civil War.[11] After the war ended, readers who discovered the work were confused as to the identity of the author; because of the use of a pseudonym, some thought that the author was Lydia Maria Child, or abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book was accepted as a novel.

From then on, prior to Jean Fagan Yellin's work in the 1970s-1980s, the accepted academic opinion, voiced by such historians as John Blassingame, was that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a fictional novel written by Lydia Maria Child. While re-reading Incidents in the 1970s as part of a project to educate herself in the use of gender as a category of analysis, Yellin became interested in the question of the text's true authorship. Over the course of a six-year effort, Yellin found and used a variety of historical documents, including from the Amy Post papers at the University of Rochester, state and local historical societies, and the Horniblow and Norcum papers at the North Carolina state archives, to establish both that Harriet Jacobs was the true author of Incidents, and that the narrative was her autobiography, not a work of fiction. At the suggestion of historian Herbert Gutman, she contacted Harvard University Press regarding publication, and her edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1987 with the endorsement of Professor John Blassingame.[12]

African-American literary and historiographic canons[edit]

As an African-American novel and historical artifact, Incidents constituted a critical intervention into the early African-American literary canon and African-American historiographies of slavery by foregrounding the experiences of black women under slavery.[13] Before black feminist challenges to the African-American literary and historiographic canons in the 1970s and '80s, the former and the latter foregrounded themes of slavery, racism, social inequality, and black cultural resistance, but failed to highlight the specific exigencies faced by black women under slavery; namely, institutionalized rape and reproductive violence. Thus, Incidents, along with other black women's novels and historiographies, directed critical attention to the ways in which race and gender interacted in the lives of black bondswomen to produce gender-specific conditions of unfreedom.[14]

The garret[edit]

The space of the garret, in which Jacobs confined herself for seven years, has been taken up as a metaphor in black critical thought, most notably by theorist Katherine McKittrick. In her text Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, McKittrick argues that the garret "highlights how geography is transformed by Jacobs into a usable and paradoxical space."[15] When she initially enters her "loophole of retreat," Jacobs states that "[its] continued darkness was oppressive…without one gleam of light…[and] with no object for my eye to rest upon." However, once she bores holes through the space with a gimlet, Jacobs creates for herself an oppositional perspective on the workings of the plantation—she comes to inhabit what McKittrick terms a "disembodied master-eye, seeing from nowhere."[16] The garret offers Jacobs an alternate way of seeing, allowing her to reimagine freedom while shielding her from the hypervisibility to which black people—especially black women—are always already subject.

Katherine McKittrick reveals how theories of geography and spatial freedom produce alternative understandings and possibilities within Black feminist thought. By centering geography in her analysis, McKittrick portrays the ways in which gendered-racial-sexual domination is spatially organized. McKittrick writes, "Recognizing black women's knowledgeable positions as integral to physical, cartographic, and experiential geographies within and through dominant spatial models also creates an analytical space for black feminist geographies: black women's political, feminist, imaginary, and creative concerns that respatialize the geographic legacy of racism-sexism."[17]

In analyzing the hiding place of Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) – the space of her grandmother's garret - McKittrick illuminates the tensions that exist within this space and how it occupies contradictory positions. Not only is the space of the garret one of resistance and freedom for Brent, but it is also a space of confinement and concealment. That is, the garret operates as a prison and, simultaneously, as a space of liberation. For Brent, freedom in the garret takes the form of loss of speech, movement, and consciousness. McKittrick writes, "Brent's spatial options are painful; the garret serves as a disturbing, but meaningful, response to slavery." As McKittrick reveals, the geographies of slavery are about gendered-racial-sexual captivities – in these sense, the space of the garret is both one of captivity and protection for Brent.


  1. ^ a b c d e Venetria K. Patton, Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women's Fiction, Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2000, pp. 53-55
  2. ^ Baker, Thomas N. Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 4. ISBN 0-19-512073-6
  3. ^ Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York 2004, pp. 146–147. ISBN 0-465-09288-8
  4. ^ "Uncle Tom's Cabin, An Introduction to," in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 131. Detroit: Gale, 2008. p. 93. Web. 27 October 2014.
  5. ^ Charles Edward Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (1911), p. 203
  6. ^ Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly 18. (1966): 151-74.
  7. ^ Patton (2000), Women in Chains, p. 39
  8. ^ Larson, Jennifer. "Converting Passive Womanhood to Active Sisterhood: Agency, Power, and Subversion in Harriet Jacobs' 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’," Women's Studies 35.8 (2006): 739-756. Web. 29 October 2014
  9. ^ Patton (2000), Women in Chains, p. 37
  10. ^ "Harriet Jacobs," The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Shorter Eighth Edition). Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 818-19.
  11. ^ "Harriet Jacobs." The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Shorter Eighth Edition). Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 818-19. Print.
  12. ^ Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2004), xv-xx; Yellin, Jean Fagan and others, eds., The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), xxiii.
  13. ^ Hine, Darlene Clark. "Rape and the inner lives of Black women in the Middle West." Signs (1989): 912-920.
  14. ^ Davis, Angela Y. Women, race, & class. Vintage, 2011.
  15. ^ McKittrick, Katherine (2006). Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press. p. xxviii.
  16. ^ McKittrick, Katherine (2006). Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press. p. 43.
  17. ^ McKittrick, Katherine (2006). Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. University of Minnesota Press. p. 53.

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