Book Review Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

matthew mckeon

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#1
Surprised to find no previous Harriet Jacobs threads.

Finished this book last night. I had read a section of it before, but this is the first time from first to last.

Written on the eve of the Civil War, Jacobs uses a pseudonym: Linda Brent, to protect the people she left behind when she escaped. What is interesting about Jacobs' book is she puts sexual exploitation front and center of her account. The most intense section is her long, very unequal contest between her and her master "Doctor Flint" actually Dr. John Norcom.

While Flint simply could have raped the young teen, he was partly held back by public opinion, and partly he was obviously depriving a great deal of pleasure from frightening Harriet, using obscene language to her and finding various ways, both physically and verbally to degrade her, a pleasure that was apparently more intense than plain sexual assault. He wanted some sort of submission from her she wouldn't make.

Eventually Jacobs concealed herself, Anne Frank fashion in the attic of sympathetic people's houses, and would make her escape to the North.

I'm leaving a lot out, but recommended, if tough reading.
 

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matthew mckeon

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#2
I've mentioned this before, but I worked for several years in a residential treatment program for girls, many of whom had awful trauma histories, which is the euphemism we used. My colleague attempted to teach Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The students stuck with it for a day, then basically went on strike because it too much like their own experience.
 

Pat Young

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#4
Surprised to find no previous Harriet Jacobs threads.

Finished this book last night. I had read a section of it before, but this is the first time from first to last.

Written on the eve of the Civil War, Jacobs uses a pseudonym: Linda Brent, to protect the people she left behind when she escaped. What is interesting about Jacobs' book is she puts sexual exploitation front and center of her account. The most intense section is her long, very unequal contest between her and her master "Doctor Flint" actually Dr. John Norcom.

While Flint simply could have raped the young teen, he was partly held back by public opinion, and partly he was obviously depriving a great deal of pleasure from frightening Harriet, using obscene language to her and finding various ways, both physically and verbally to degrade her, a pleasure that was apparently more intense than plain sexual assault. He wanted some sort of submission from her she wouldn't make.

Eventually Jacobs concealed herself, Anne Frank fashion in the attic of sympathetic people's houses, and would make her escape to the North.

I'm leaving a lot out, but recommended, if tough reading.
I have read sections of the book, but never the whole thing. I'll try to get to it.
 

Cavalry Charger

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#5
I've mentioned this before, but I worked for several years in a residential treatment program for girls, many of whom had awful trauma histories, which is the euphemism we used. My colleague attempted to teach Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The students stuck with it for a day, then basically went on strike because it too much like their own experience.
I don't think it matters what background you come from, if this is your experience such accounts will inevitably affect you deeply. Issues such as these cross boundaries and, while the story focuses on a young slave girl, the reality is that sexual assault and degradation can affect any girl/woman, at any time. It can also affect boys and men. I don't think I would enjoy reading this book on that account alone, so I'm glad to have gained some further insight here. Probably not one I will be adding to my bookshelf any time soon.
 

matthew mckeon

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#6
A lot of the "action" mainly Harriet arranging for her and her children's escape and trying to make a life in the North, is her balancing the various forces in her world: sympathetic blacks, the free blacks, the enslaved, and who they were enslaved to, and under what terms, whites, either predatory or various kinds of allies. They are also intricate webs of kin and varying degrees of obligation they feel towards each other. Its interesting.
 

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A lot of the "action" mainly Harriet arranging for her and her children's escape and trying to make a life in the North, is her balancing the various forces in her world: sympathetic blacks, the free blacks, the enslaved, and who they were enslaved to, and under what terms, whites, either predatory or various kinds of allies. They are also intricate webs of kin and varying degrees of obligation they feel towards each other. Its interesting.
Perhaps this provides the balance in the story I would be looking for, as opposed to Harriet's degradation under a slave master. The experiences you describe here are unique to enslaved people and their journeys, so I'm going to have to revise the thinking in my earlier post, and maybe take a look at it after all. There are just some experiences that are not unique to the enslaved alone.
 
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#8
I read Harriet Jacobs four years ago when I first got interested in the Civil War. I was reading through the books on Prof. David Blight's reading list for his online Civil War and Reconstruction course (http://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-119#syllabus). One of the required readings was Frederick Douglass' autobiography. At that time the Twelve Years a Slave movie was just coming out, so I read the book for that, too. I started searching for slave narratives online, and found Harriet Jacobs. All three of these are available online for free, and are well worth reading! Each tells the story of a different individual, and each is unique.
 

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#9
I read the digital version of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, probably by '04 or '05. Not long after I found an Enlarged edition with a subtitle "Harriet A. Jacobs-edited and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin---Now with "A True Tale of Slavery" by John S. Jacobs, Harriet's brother).
Harriet hid in her grandmothers attic for 7 years before she was able to escape to the North, and watched her children grow up thru a small hole in the roof. Unable to find a publisher after writing the book, Harriet published the book on her own.
As Harriet's actual home of slavery is Not mentioned in her book, with much research Yellin was able to locate and verify both her home and the people in her life during her slavery.
I consider the book to be a true American classic and should be read by Everyone. IMHO!
 

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#10
I read the digital version of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, probably by '04 or '05. Not long after I found an Enlarged edition with a subtitle "Harriet A. Jacobs-edited and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin---Now with "A True Tale of Slavery" by John S. Jacobs, Harriet's brother).
Harriet hid in her grandmothers attic for 7 years before she was able to escape to the North, and watched her children grow up thru a small hole in the roof. Unable to find a publisher after writing the book, Harriet published the book on her own.
As Harriet's actual home of slavery is Not mentioned in her book, with much research Yellin was able to locate and verify both her home and the people in her life during her slavery.
I consider the book to be a true American classic and should be read by Everyone. IMHO!
Will do.
 

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#11
I'm currently reading the book for the bio I'm writing on Harriet Jacob. With the book written in the 19th century, I expected a different way of talking/narrative. Am pleasantly surprised how "normal" the style actually is.

What makes me feel oppressed the most is the emotional dilemma she's constantly in, especially after the comparatively quiet years she had in her childhood. For a while I honestly wondered how bad it could really be; her first mistress seemed quite nice to her. I quickly revised those thoughts when Norcom started harassing her. That she never lost faith in all those years of mental if not physical anguish is a miracle. The way the Norcoms try to cause their victim feeling guilty... I'm so proud of Harriet that she never gave in and stayed strong!

During my research on Harriet I found that back in the 19th century, people believed it to be a fictional novel, not an autobiography. Mostly because Harriet used pseudonyms to cover the real identities of the people involved to not betray herself. Curiously enough, I just now read on p. 284:

I passed nearly a year in the family of Isaac and Amy Post, practical believers in the Christian doctrine of human brotherhood.

Amy and Isaac Post are obviously the real names. The entire time Harriet's been careful not to use real names. Why then did she use the real ones of Amy and Isaac Post? Because they were already well known as abolitionists? But even then giving their names would make her easier to be discovered, no? Any thoughts?
 

matthew mckeon

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#12
I'm currently reading the book for the bio I'm writing on Harriet Jacob. With the book written in the 19th century, I expected a different way of talking/narrative. Am pleasantly surprised how "normal" the style actually is.

What makes me feel oppressed the most is the emotional dilemma she's constantly in, especially after the comparatively quiet years she had in her childhood. For a while I honestly wondered how bad it could really be; her first mistress seemed quite nice to her. I quickly revised those thoughts when Norcom started harassing her. That she never lost faith in all those years of mental if not physical anguish is a miracle. The way the Norcoms try to cause their victim feeling guilty... I'm so proud of Harriet that she never gave in and stayed strong!

During my research on Harriet I found that back in the 19th century, people believed it to be a fictional novel, not an autobiography. Mostly because Harriet used pseudonyms to cover the real identities of the people involved to not betray herself. Curiously enough, I just now read on p. 284:

I passed nearly a year in the family of Isaac and Amy Post, practical believers in the Christian doctrine of human brotherhood.

Amy and Isaac Post are obviously the real names. The entire time Harriet's been careful not to use real names. Why then did she use the real ones of Amy and Isaac Post? Because they were already well known as abolitionists? But even then giving their names would make her easier to be discovered, no? Any thoughts?
Jacobs was trying to protect the people still in slavery or in the slave states. The well known Posts were New Yorkers.
 



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