Harriet Jacobs' Narrative Strategies: Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl

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Author: Thomas Doherty
Editor: Denise Evans
Date: 1998
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,346 words

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In the following essay, Doherty examines Jacob's use of the conventions of the sentimental genre and describes the shortcomings of Incidents as a sentimental novel. Rather, he argues that Jacobs “ingeniously inducts `women's literature' into the cause of women's politics.”

In 1853, the fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs confided her literary ambitions to the poet and abolitionist Amy Post. “Don't expect too much of me, dear Amy,” she cautioned, “You shall have truth but not talent” (Sterling 79). Jacobs' modest opinion of the work that became Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, has generally accorded with critical opinion. When noted at all, it has been valued primarily as a historical document, one of the precious few antebellum slave narratives written by a woman—and even then, until quite recently, a text considered of dubious authenticity.1 Likewise, its formal virtues have received scant consideration, Jacobs' stylistic debt to the sentimental novel typically warranting her the bemused appellation “the Pamela of the slave narratives” (Bayliss 108, Foster 58-59).

Though the dearth of historical and literary regard has lately been somewhat remedied, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is still more apt to be taken as a generic anomaly filling the affirmative action slot of English Department book lists than as a complex creative act deserving scrutiny in its own right. Like Jean de Crevecoeur's naive Farmer James in Letters from an American Farmer, the author's guileless persona has too effectively masked her literary sophistication. Prefatory claims of authorial innocence and creative “deficiencies” (xiii) aside, 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 polemical purpose.

Even by the standards of slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl relates an incredible story. Linda, the author's autobiographical persona, is orphaned in childhood and reared by her kindly manumated grandmother, a community matriarch of no little authority in her Carolina county. In early adolescence, the precocious slave girl is made servant to the lecherous Dr. Flint, a hypocrite with all the unholy passions and none of the capacity for moral regeneration of the sentimentalist seducers of the era's best-selling fiction. As Linda grows to womanhood, Flint's sexual harassment becomes increasingly persistent and aggressive, but despite threats and temptations, she steadfastly repulses the advances of her ostensible master. When she cheekily confesses her love for a free-born “young colored carpenter” (36), Flint rages like a jealous suitor, striking Linda and forbidding her marriage.

Shortly after the ill-starred romance, and seemingly more in willful defiance of Flint than from any infatuation of her own, Linda succumbs to the attentions of a prominent white man, by whom she eventually bears two children. Again, Flint is furious and abusive, though (curiously) his violence always stops short of rape. Unable any longer to bear his persecutions, Linda goes into hiding, leading Flint and his...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420015051