Harriet Jacobs: Contribution to American Literature

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      Born in North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs (1818-1896), was a slave. When she was six years old, her mother died. The strongest wish of her father was to purchase the freedom of his children but he too died without fulfilling his wish. She was taught to read and write by her white mistress. On eve of her mistress’s death, Jacobs was sold to a white master who tried to force her to have sexual relations. She resisted him finding another white lover by whom she had two children who went to live with her grandmother, Molly Homiblow, an extraordinary woman, who, along with her two children, was sold back into slavery. It seems less degrading to give one’s self than to submit to compulsion she can daily wrote. She escaped from her owner and started a rumor that she had fled the north. Terrified of being caught and sent back to slavery and punishment, she spent almost seven years hidden in her master’s town, in the tiny dark attic of her grandmother’s house. She was sustained by glimpses of her beloved children seen through holes that she drilled through the ceiling. Finally, she escaped to the North, settling in Rochester, New York, where Fredrick Douglass was publishing the anti-slavery newspaper North Star and near which (in Seneca Falls) a women’s rights convention had recently met.

      Historically speaking, Jacobs wrote at the confluence of the cultures but for her those cultures were different. There, Jacobs was a Quaker feminist abolitionist, who encouraged her to write her autobiography. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), published under the pseudonym “Linda Brent” in 1861, were edited by Lydia Child. It outright condemned the sexual exploitation of the black slave women. Jacobs's book, like Douglas’s is part of the slave narrative genre extending back to Olaudah Equiano in the colonial times. This is a tale that concentrates on the female experience of slavery and in doing so, appropriates the techniques of the sentimental novel as well as using that slave narrative. At the center is the familiar protagonist of sentimental fiction, a young woman affronting her destiny and in due time faced with dangerous seducer - the female orphan making her way in the world.

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