Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in 1813 near Edenton, North Carolina. She enjoyed a relatively happy family life until she was six years old, when her mother died. Jacobs’s mistress, Margaret Horniblow, took her in and cared for her, teaching her to read, write, and sew. When Horniblow died, she willed the twelve-year-old Jacobs to her niece, and Jacobs’s life soon took a dramatic turn for the worse. Her new mistress’s father, Dr. James Norcom (“Dr. Flint” in Incidents), subjected Jacobs to aggressive and unrelenting sexual harassment. At age sixteen, afraid that Norcom would eventually rape her, Jacobs began a relationship with a white neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer (“Mr. Sands” in Incidents), and with him she had two children while still in her teens. Instead of discouraging Norcom, Jacobs’s affair only enraged him. In 1835, he sent her away to a life of hard labor on a plantation he owned, also threatening to break in her young children as field hands.
Jacobs soon ran away from the plantation and spent almost seven years hiding in a tiny attic crawl space in her grandmother’s house. She was unable to sit or stand, and she eventually became permanently physically disabled. In 1842, Jacobs escaped to New York and found work as a nanny in the household of a prominent abolitionist writer, Nathaniel Parker Willis. She was eventually reunited with her children and later joined the antislavery movement. In 1861, the year the Civil War began, Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, under the pseudonym Linda Brent.
During the 1850s, when Jacobs was writing her book, slavery was a highly explosive issue in the rapidly expanding United States. Americans argued bitterly over whether or not slavery should be allowed in new territories like California, Kansas, and Nebraska. The Compromise of 1850 sought to hold the Union together by designating California a free state, but it also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, which facilitated the recapture of runaway slaves. The solution was only temporary, and the divisions that led to the Civil War continued to deepen. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to bloody confrontations between pro- and anti-slavery settlers in those territories. In response to these conflicts, the Underground Railroad became more active and abolitionists increased their propaganda efforts, in which slave narratives such as Incidents played a crucial part.
Slave narratives were the dominant literary mode in early African-American literature. Thousands of accounts, some legitimate and some the fictional creations of white abolitionists, were published in the years between 1820 and the Civil War. These were political as well as literary documents, used to promote the antislavery cause and to answer pro-slavery claims that slaves were happy and well-treated. Most slave narratives feature graphic descriptions of the violent whippings and severe deprivation inflicted on slaves, attempting to appeal to the emotions and conscience of white readers. Some of the most famous narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, also tell the inspiring story of a brutalized slave’s journey toward self-definition and self-assertion. Like other slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl chronicles the abuses of slavery, the slave’s struggle for self-definition and self-respect, and the harrowing details of a dangerous escape. However, Jacobs’s story also emphasizes the special problems faced by female slaves, particularly sexual abuse and the anguish of slave mothers who are separated from their children. Because of its unique point of view, and because of the skilled, novelistic way Jacobs tells her tale, the book has become one of the most celebrated slave narratives of all time.
Critics have compared the style and structure of Incidents to the hugely popular “sentimental novels” of the nineteenth century, many of which tell the story of a young girl fighting to protect her virtue from a sexually aggressive man. Jacobs knew that her contemporaries would see her not as a virtuous woman but as a fallen one and would be shocked by her relationship with Sawyer and the illegitimate children it produced. In spite of her embarrassment, Jacobs insisted on telling her story honestly and completely, determined to make white Americans aware of the sexual victimization that slave women commonly faced and to dramatize the fact that they often had no choice but to surrender their “virtue.”
When it was published, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was well-received and accepted as a legitimate documentation of the horrors of slavery. For most of the twentieth century, however, scholars believed the book to be a fictional tale written to further the abolitionist cause, and that “Linda Brent,” its protagonist, had never really existed. They speculated that Lydia Maria Child, who was a successful novelist as well as an activist, must have been the memoir’s real author. Not until the 1980s, when the critic Jean Fagan Yellin discovered a cache of letters from Harriet Jacobs to Lydia Maria Child, did Jacobs again receive credit for her work. Yellin went on to research Jacobs’s life and verify that the events of Incidents are true and accurate.
After writing her book, Jacobs continued to work to help those she had left behind in slavery. During and after the Civil War, she aided black refugees behind Union lines and nursed African-American soldiers. After the war, she returned to the South and worked for many years to help freed slaves, founding two free schools for blacks and traveling to England to raise money for the freedmen. Jacobs died in Washington, D.C., in 1897.