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Discovering Truth in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Discovering Truth in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

_________________________
Melissa McGowen
English 601
December 2013

Melissa McGowen
Barish Ali
English 601
December 2013
Discovering Truth in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Publication and Critical Reception:
The autobiographical text, Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl suffered a difficult road in becoming published. The text suffered an even larger feat in becoming recognized for its worth. Because it took many years for the author, now revealed as Harriet Jacobs, to be properly identified, the work had been dismissed as fictional. Jacobs’ decision to remain anonymous came from guilt and disgrace over the way she was treated while enslaved and the actions she was forced to take to become free, particularly those pertaining to sexual acts. Wanting to be viewed as a “proper Christian” she decided to create the pseudonym name Linda Brent. It was under this name the text was published. In later years, her text has been viewed as an important text, speaking truth to the ears of sentimental novel readers in the north, and calling for action against the cruel institution of slavery.
Employed as a teacher by Pace University in 1968, Jean Fagan Yellin wrote and published her dissertation. While re-reading Incidents in the 1970s as part of the project and 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 Over the next six-years, Yellin found and used historical documents including the Amy Post papers at the University of Rochester (Post was a close friend of Jacobs), state and local historical societies, and the Horniblow and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. Her edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1987 and explained much of the process by which she had identified Jacob’s authorship and the truthfulness of the incidents explained in the text. In addition, Yellin engaged in further research and decided that a biography of Jacobs was needed, so she wrote Harriet Jacobs: A Life, which was published in 2004. It is from the works of Yellin that much of the information provided about the drafting, editing, and publication, of Incidents can be learned.
According to Yellin’s research it took many years for Jacobs to draft the text while working as a housemaid and nanny in a Massachusetts home called Idlewild. After a failed attempt at asking Harriet Beecher Stowe to help her pen the text, she decided to write it all with her own hand. After trying to get her book published abroad and then back in America by Philips and Samson, Jacobs was beginning to lose hope the book would ever be published. Determined to make another effort, Jacobs approached Thayer and Eldridge, who agreed to publish the book and encouraged her to add to the authenticity of the novel by adding a preface by the name of a trusted writer, L. Maria Child. To her surprise and delight, Child also agreed to edit the work and provide it with an introduction. With help from Child, Jacobs’ text was promoted in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. Unfortunately Thayer and Eldridge went bankrupt before they were ever able to print a single copy of Incidents. After that, probably with the help of her friends, Jacobs herself purchased the plates and arranged to have her book printed and bound. Armed with her professional looking book, bound by the Boston Stereotype Foundry, Jacobs had become Linda Brent. In December of 1859, Jacobs herself came to Philadelphia to promote abolition by selling her narrative.
By January Jacobs had sold about 50 copies of her book in the Philadelphia area and decided to begin peddling the book in nearby communities. In Boston she met with the leader of the Garrisonian, who paid her $100 for copies to be sold by antislavery agents. Child and another friend worked to promote the book. A book review appeared in the form of a letter to the Liberator by William C. Nell on January 21, 1861 that focused on how the book appeals to women. More praise came from an unsigned announcement in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, claiming that the book’s “simple and attractive” style made readers feel like they were “talking with the woman herself” (McKay and Foster 162). The February 1861 National Anti-Slavery Standard ran an ad that noted “the book had a vivid dramatic power as a narrative, and it should have wide circulation” (Yellin 147). Also around February 1861 The Standard reprinted Jacobs’ “Preface by the author,” Child’s “Introduction by the Editor,” and the letters by George W. Lowther (a friend associated with the Liberator) and Amy Post (long-time friend of Jacobs). In March of 1861, a chapter of the book was printed in the Weekly Anglo-African and then in April it was advertised that the book could be purchased from their offices in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
In a notice appearing in the London Anti-Slavery Advocate, a writer praised the novel, stating that he had met the author first hand and read the manuscript she had taken with her to London on her first attempt at publishing the book abroad (Yellin 148). Also in 1861, Jacobs’ brother published his narrative in a London journal called The Leisure Hour. These two happenings caused Jacobs’ to reconsider the idea of publishing abroad. Eventually Jacobs sent a copy of her book to Frederick Chesson of the London Emancipation Committee and shipped the stereotype and plates to him, asking him to find a publisher. He was able to publish it under William Tweedie, reprinted with Jacobs’ plates. Less than a month later, Hodson and Son produced a pirated edition.
Regardless of the copyright infringement, the text became popular and received satisfactory reviews in London. The London Morning Star and Dial printed a review by Amelia Chesson claims the text to be “the first personal narrative in which one of that sex upon whom chattel servitude falls with the deepest and darkest shadow has ever described her own bitter experience” (Yellin 152). In the London Daily News, an article appears calling Linda Brent a “heroine,” saying that “in her artless memoir, she sets before us a picture of endurance and persistency in the struggle for liberty, of strong natural affection, and at the same time or moral rectitude, according to her lights, which it would not be an easy matter to match” (Yellin 153). Reviews also surfaced in Newcastle, Plymouth, and in the Irish Londonderry Standard.
The criticism I reviewed around the time the text was printed comes in the form of these book reviews and promotions, mostly discovered and presented in Yellin’s 2004 publication. These book reviews all seem to praise and recommend the text. In the manner of critical reviews, I find most serious writings only appear after the work of Yellin. Once knowledge was widely spread that the text in Incidents was a true narrative, many critical articles appear in the dates between 1981 and 1998. A collective work of these articles was published by Cambridge University Press in 1996, called Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays, edited by Garfield and Zafar.
Among new critical essays I find many ideas. Ann Taves (1987) writes about Jacob’s confessional tone within the novel, taking the text to be an account of true events. Valerie Smith (1987) writes about Form and Ideology in Slave Narratives. She finds in fitting to include Incidents as a proper model. In 1991 Nellie Y. McKay writes about childhood and memories in Autobiography, and pairs Incidents with the prestigious writings of Mary Church Turrell and Anne Moody to perform her study. Harryette Mullen (1992) speaks about Resistant Orality and uses Jacobs, Stowe, and Morrison to make points about oral traditions of slaves. Michelle Burnham (1993) uses Jacobs’ Narrative to explain the Critique of Agency in Foucault. In 1996, Frances Smith Foster talks about resistance and how Jacobs “devised the techniques that would allow her maximum freedom to tell her story” (McKay and Foster 329). Sandra Gunning (1996) talks about how Jacobs “defines black femininity” in Incidents. In 1997 Elizabeth V. Spelman identifies Incidents as a sentimental novel that was written to “generate compassion in [her] audiences, provoke the kind of feeling that would incline readers to help relieve the suffering and oppose evil” (McKay and Foster 353). In 1998, Christine Accomando discusses the fact that Incidents is the first narrative written by a female, for the female audience, expressing “female concerns” (McKay and Foster 365). In addition, more recent criticism can be found speaking about gender themes, race, spirituality, authorship, sexual abuse, life after slavery, and cultural identity.
In conclusion, I find proper evidence to infer that, although published anonymously, Incidents was well received and read by critics of its time. Appearing around the same time as many other antislavery pleas and autobiographies of sentiment seeking slaves, Jacobs’ work added fuel to the already brightly burning fire. The text continues to educate and provoke emotional response among the literary crowd, as they continue to find meaning and lesson in Jacobs’ words. Greatly applauded for its truth and perspective into the mind and sufferings of the female slave, Jacobs crafted an everlasting tale of morality, courage, and freedom.

Works Cited:
Garfield, Deborah M., and Rafia Zafar. Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:
New Critical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet A., Nellie Y. McKay, and Frances Smith. Foster. Incidents in the Life of a Slave
Girl: Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York, NY: Basic Civitas, 2004. Print.
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