Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Author: Yvonne Johnson
Editors: Jessica Bomarito and Russel Whitaker
Date: 2006
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,450 words

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[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Johnson analyzes Jacobs's approach to point of view in her autobiography. Johnson argues that, by using a fictional alter ego to tell her life story, Jacobs establishes a distance between author and subject in the narrative.]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is, according to Joanne Braxton, "the only known full-length work by an Afra-American [sic] writing about her experiences as a slave woman" (Black 23). Of over one hundred thirty existing slave narratives, only sixteen were written by women, and most of those women were free northerners (Fox-Genovese Plantation 461). Although Incidents was first published in Boston in 1861, it was for many years overlooked as an important slave narrative. In the early twentieth century it was categorized as a false slave narrative, a work of fiction written by the white abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child. This important work remained almost forgotten by the general public until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and then the Women's Movement of the 1970s created new interest in it. Jean Fagan Yellin, literary historian, biographer, and editor of the most recent publication of Incidents, became convinced that the narrative was not fiction, but a historically verifiable document. She proceeded to research newly available documents, notably those in the Post Archive at the University of Rochester. In 1981, she succeeded in establishing the veracity of the narrative (Yellin, Introduction xiii-xxv). From that date the narrative has been reexamined from both literary and historical perspectives. The following analysis will examine three areas in which the voice of the author/protagonist manifests itself: the voice of the narrator herself; the audience to whom it is addressed, the narratee(s) and implied readers; and finally, the narrative perspective or point of view. The narrator and the author are the same in autobiographical texts, but in Jacobs's narrative the author distances herself by creating a fictional narrator, Linda Brent. Because of the distancing between author and narrator, Harriet Jacobs's name will be used when referring to the author, but her pseudonym, Linda Brent will be used in reference to the narrator and protagonist.

According to Susan Sniader Lanser, every written text has a "voice that 'speaks' and another, usually silent consciousness that 'hears'" (Narrative Act 114). While the voice "speaks" through the narrator, the consciousness that "hears," the audience to whom the text is addressed, is often referred to as the narratee. The authorial voice of Incidents certainly speaks through the narrator, Linda Brent, but can also be examined as a separate entity. Lanser suggests that this authorial voice speaks "through the text's title, through whatever information is provided about the text's genre, purpose, and mode and through the author's name" (Narrative Act 124). The reader of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is made aware by the title that the text is a slave narrative; by the subtitle, Written by Herself, that it was written by the author rather than an amanuensis; and, that the author is...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420068569