The above stated works is an autobiography by a young fugitive slave and mother which documents her life in slavery and how she came to get her freedom and that of her offspring. By addressing gender and race issues through techniques of sentimental novels, the author greatly contributed to the slave narrative genre. The author explores sexual abuse and other struggles that female slaves went through while working in plantations together with their exertions to practice motherhood and protect their children lest they be sold elsewhere. Gale observes that “Harriet details her persecutions from Dr. Flint and seeks to correct the assumption that a slaveholder’s wife would have any interest in protecting young slave girls from her husband’s predation”. The book was addressed to the white women from the north who had not a single idea of the kinds of evil that slavery brings. In the book, the author makes direct pleas to the humanity of the white women from the north to increase their knowledge and influence their perception of slavery. This is illustrated by the quote, “there is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment”. The author began composing her book as soon as she escaped and went to New York. “The sexual abuse content in her initial publications were thought to be too dreadful for average readers at the time, and further publication of her book ceased until she completed the book” (Gale). Incidents in the book addressed critical issues that had been earlier raised by abolitionists such as Harriet Stowe Beecher.
“The book had initially received positive reviews, but lost attention because of the commencement of the civil war” (Jacobs). After the end of the civil war, readers who managed to read the book were muddled by the author’s identity and gender, and this was largely due to the use of the fictitious name. However, the book was largely embraced as a novel. The book received more interest during the 70s and the 80s because of the reintroduced highlighting of women and minority rights and their culture. “Critics such as John Blassingame argued that the book wasn’t really a true works of a past slave since the book did not in any way adapt to the representatives’ guidelines; and it was different from other slavery-related works” (Venetria K. Patton). Thereafter, other critics and historians have come to be of the view that the author of the book had approached the highlighted issues of slavery from another perspective than other authors of the same narrative, particularly the male ones. “The variation in Jacobs’s work is that her approach represented her on personal perspective as a woman of color who had herself been living in slavery” (Stowe). Yellin Fagan Jean did more research on the book and came to document that it was indeed Harriet Jacobs, a woman who had lived in and escaped slavery, who was the book’s real author.
William L. Andrews, in his review of Harriet Jacob’s book, rates it as the most imperative book written by a black woman during the antebellum era. He states that the book contains the most sustained and first analysis of the link between the male-controlled oppression of women of color and the exploitation of the black people of the south during the 19th century. Once the book came out, there was a longstanding skepticism among social and literary historians. Some thought that at best, the book was a literary product of Linda Maria Child who was the editor. At worst, others thought that it was merely a fabrication. Jean Fagan Yellin’s research is what overturned this skepticism, and it did so in the most convincing manner (Andrews). “Thought the book did have the same impact as Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography published in 1845, Harriet’s analysis of the precise and sexually oriented oppression of black women in slavery played a big part in its quiet reception. The skeptical readership presents at the time held in contempt her melodramatic style of writing and her disinclination to show herself as an avatar of self-sufficiency” (Deborah M. Garfield). The cultural norms of manliness always thought of a slave as a man, and this also influenced how her book was received.
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“The main aim of Jacobs’ book was to call unto the white women of the north to realize the condition of the many women in the south and to persuade those in the Free states to understand what slavery really meant” (Larson). “She had a strong conviction that the women from the north wouldn’t fail to respond to moral action” (Jean Fagan Yellin). As a critical historization of female slaves, the book exists as a testimony of the tragic human losses that were experienced at that time, and reminds people of those who did not manage to escape it. The book also served to paint a public profile for the author. “From the book, one could ascertain that Harriet’s nature was not that of giving up without a fight. She thwarted several sexual advancements that were being made by her master. Before the start of the Civil War, Harriet had been very involved with the abolitionists and had used the celebrity her book had won her was used to raise funds for African-American refugees” (McGlinn). Even after the war, she still served to better the conditions for the newly freed slaves. Her commitment to better her life saw her take control of her destiny during her early adulthood days. What was most remarkable about Harriet’s book is that it directly appealed to women and it focused on certain struggles that girls and women faced while in captivity.
During the time of slavery, women were supposed to be pure, pious, domestic, and submissive. Slavery, as Jacobs showed, tended to violate these principles and defeminized black women. The fact that she had printed the book using a fictitious name did not help boost its popularity, nor did her depiction of the accounts of sexual abuse which even the most outspoken abolitionists considered as being shocking (shmoop). Though it took a long time for Harriet Jacobs to be credited for her work as a campaigner for the rights of African Americans in Slavery during that time, she will always be one of the literary pioneers of calling for the fight against slavery. Correspondence existed between Jacob and Maria L. Child. The letters between them that were uncovered by “Yellin proved that Maria’s role as the book’s editor was not any more than what Maria had acknowledged in the book’s introduction. Maria stated that her role as the editor was only to ensure that there was directness and arrangement in the narrative, and that she did not alter anything with regard to Jacob’s recollection of her experience as a slave “(Andrews). “However, Harriet’s choice to write the book came from her correspondence with Amy Post who was a female activist and Quaker abolitionist” (Gates). It was in Post that Harriet had confided her past, and it was Post who encouraged her to put it down in writing even after Harriet’s request had been rejected by Harriet Stowe Beecher. On his part, Jacobs conceives of Harriet as a person, and it is insulting to her that her husband violates the sanctity of the marriage bed to take up with someone she views as naturally inferior.
Andrews, William L. “Review.” Black American Literature Forum 21.4 (1987): 463-465.
Deborah M. Garfield, Rafia Zafar. “Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays.” Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 2016. 3.
Gale. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, An Introduction to.” Children’s Literature Review 131 (2014): 93.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds.,. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Ann Jacobs. The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris William L. Andrews. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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 (2006): 739-756.
McGlinn, Jeanne M. McGlinn and JaMes e. A TEACHER;S GUIDE TO THE SIGNET CLASSICS EDITION OF HARRIET JACOBS;S INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2008.
shmoop. STRUT YOUR STUFF. 23 July 2016. ;http://www.shmoop.com/incidents-life-slave-girl/;.
Stowe, Charles Edward. Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life. 1911.
Venetria K. Patton. Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: SUNY Press, 2000.