Authors: Harriet Jacobs

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American memoirist and reformer

c. 1813

Edenton, North Carolina

March 7, 1897

Washington, D.C.


A writer, abolitionist, reformer, and educator, Harriet Ann Jacobs was the first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the United States. As a literary form, the slave narrative is considered to be the primary antebellum genre for black American writers, as well as a primary source for all historians seeking information about slavery. In stature and eloquence, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is regarded as highly as the earlier narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and William Wells Brown. It possesses the distinction of presenting a woman’s firsthand account of slavery as no other narrative does. {$I[AN]9810001804} {$I[A]Jacobs, Harriet} {$S[A]Brent, Linda;Jacobs, Harriet} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Jacobs, Harriet} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jacobs, Harriet} {$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Jacobs, Harriet} {$I[tim]1813;Jacobs, Harriet}

Harriet Jacobs.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Probably during the autumn of 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in eastern North Carolina. Like her mother, Delilah, Jacobs was enslaved by Margaret Horniblow. Her father, Daniel Jacobs, was enslaved by Andrew Knox. When Jacobs was six years old, her mother died, and she was taken into her owner’s home and treated almost as one of the family. She was encouraged to read and sew, as Phillis Wheatley had been two generations earlier. When Jacobs was eleven, she was willed to her mistress’s young niece, Mary Matilda Norcom, and sent to live in the nearby Norcom family home. After Jacobs’s father died the following year, she was left with two remaining relatives—her younger brother and her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a free woman who operated a bakery in her home and served as a village matriarch.

Jacobs’s dilemma as woman and writer was thrust upon her as she grew into adolescence. The father of Mary Matilda Norcom, Dr. James Norcom, was Jacobs’s de facto owner. Norcom, a middle-aged, married physician and one of the most powerful men in the area, was sexually and obsessively attracted to Jacobs. He harassed her relentlessly, seeking to turn her into his concubine. To forestall his maneuvers, Jacobs at age sixteen made a choice born of despair: She formed a sexual and protective liaison with a less hateful white neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. From this relationship, she had two children, a son, Joseph (born around 1829 or 1830), and a daughter, Louisa Matilda (born 1833).

Thereafter, Jacobs’s overriding goal became freeing her children and herself. When she was twenty-one, Norcom renewed his pursuit, punishing her refusal by sending her out to hard labor on a plantation. Learning that he was about to do the same to her children, she decided to escape. Rightly believing that Norcom would sell the children to their father if she were gone, Jacobs hid with friends, both black and white. Norcom frantically sought her. The children lived with her grandmother, and she moved into the tiny attic crawlspace of her grandmother’s house. There, able to watch the children through a chink in the wall, she spent nearly seven years—reading the Bible, sewing clothes for the children, and planning means to free them all.

In 1842, she succeeded in fleeing north, was united with Louisa, and arranged for Joseph to be sent to her brother. Finding a place in the home of editor Nathaniel Parker Willis, she began twenty years of work in favor of abolition and women’s rights. She was encouraged to write her own story by such antislavery feminists as Amy Post and Lydia Maria Child. After several attempts at publication, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was privately printed early in 1861.

Jacobs had many doubts to overcome before publication. Given the obvious power of southern slaveholders, her subject was taboo. She wished to write a book exposing the sexual exploitation of enslaved women; to do so, however, she would have to reveal her own sexual history and the fact that she was an unwed mother of two. Her resolution was to create an alter ego and pseudonym, Linda Brent, who presents a first-person narrative that withholds nothing and moves the book beyond all previous limits of “polite” women’s writing. Of the ninety or so book-length narratives published before Emancipation, fewer than ten are by women. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the great achievements of nineteenth century American literature and fulfills the promise of the slave narrative “to tell a free story.” Jacobs draws in her audience with her opening sentence, “Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.” She presents two seemingly conflicting stories: On one hand, her book is the personal narrative of a heroic slave mother who overcomes enormous odds to rescue her children and herself from a vile institution; on the other, it is the first-person confession of a “fallen woman.” Jacobs uses language differently in each instance. In the first, she gives precise details in direct and vivid language. In the second, admitting her sexual history, she omits details, uses vaguer diction and elaborate sentences, and resorts to the language generally associated with popular fiction of the period. Nonetheless, her narrator never evades responsibility for her actions; she is an active, thinking figure.

Except for one trip to her hometown of Edenton, Jacobs spent the remainder of her life working in Washington, D.C., where she died in 1897.

Author Works Nonfiction: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861 (autobiography; pb. in England as The Deeper Wrong: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1862) Bibliography Andrews, William L. “Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813–1897.” Documenting the American South, University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2 Aug. 2017, Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. A brief but detailed biographical profile of Jacobs. Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. An excellent study of the slave narrative as literary form. Garfield, Deborah M., and Rafia Zafar, eds. Harriet Jacobs and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”: New Critical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A critical study. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987. Includes an introduction by Gates. Johnson, Yvonne. The Voices of African American Women: The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Examines Jacobs’s narrative in the light of twentieth century works by African American women. Kaplan, Carla. The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Discusses Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Charlotte Brontë, and Alice Walker. Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Analyzes the political and social views of Jacobs, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. Sekora, John, and Darwin T. Turner, eds. The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1982. Contains several essays on Jacobs’s narrative. Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. Places Jacobs with other writers and lecturers.

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