Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

22 Pages, Grade: 2,5



II. Definition of the term Autobiography

III. Types of Autobiographies
1. Slave Narrative
2. Franklin’s Autobiography
3. Sentimental Novel

IV. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
1. The Historical Person of Harriet Jacobs
2. Olney’s Masterplan
a. The Role of a Female Slave
b. Social Criticism – the Myth of the “Southern Belle and the Hypocrisy of Paternalism of the “peculiar institution”
c. Conclusion on Olney’s Masterplan
3. Comparison between Benjamin Franklin and Harriet Jacobs

V. Conclusion

II. Definition of the term Autobiography

An autobiography is the story of somebody’s life written by that person. The variety of autobiographical documents published in the last centuries makes it necessary to define the term more precisley. Therefore, it has to be differentiated from other genres to be able to rank Harriet Jacobs as an autobiograph. Roy Pascal defines an autobiography as a work that reflects the development of an individual seen from a certain perspective[1] while James Olney says that an autobiography has to be “a unique tale, uniquely told, of a unique life.”[2] However, not every story written in the first person is an autobiography, since another criterion is the role of an active and creative choreograph which is the autobiograph. Olney defines it as:

“a recollective / narrative act in which the writer, from a certain point in his life – the present - , looks back over the events of that life and recounts them in such a way as to show how that past history has led to his present state of being.”[3]

Furthermore, an autobiography is not an enumeration, but a selection of incidents appropriate to the author’s goal. Therefore, it is not only a reconstruction, but also an interpretation[4] since it

“represents the writer’s effort, made at a certain stage of life, to portray the meaning of personal experience as it has deeloped over the course of a significant period of time or from the distance of that significant time period.”[5]

An autobiography may also be the precise account of facts. Here it is a lot more important how the author handles history. Therefore, the author is treating his “present memory reflecting over a past experience on its way to becoming the present being.”[6]

The historical events are not recounted in chronological order, but reflected by the author’s point of view and, by this, they are in a new order. The author writing in the first person reconstucts and judges the incidents of the past with regard to his present situation. The meaning arises during the process of writing.[7]

III. Types of Autobiographies

1. Slave Narrative

In the beginning of the 18th century the first reports and accounts of runaway-slaves appeared in the northern states. Their lifesotries were mostly written down and published by white authors. These publishings were usually initiated by religious groups that held a critical view to slavery or by the so-called abolitionists, a movement whose goal was to abolish slavery. They often used the slaves’ histories to sensitize the white public for this subject. Therefore, the slave narratives had to emotionally touch the reader to reach a solidarity with the so-called subhuman creatures.

The usual way to reach this goal are an emotional language (similar to the sentimental novel), making an appeal to general American virtues (such as family, religion, motherhood, womanhood) and the application of these virtues to persons who usually are not identified with them. Incidents shows, by using the methods of the sentimental novel, how children are taken away from their mothers, familes are seperated, and how christian commandments such as charity, justice, chastity in marriage are disregarded. Therefore, the main attention is not directed on color but on the representation as father, mother, husband and wife. The main content of the slave narrative is always the account of the dramatic (successful) escape into freedom; a detail which was decisive for the popularity of the accounts.

Based on the fact that many slave narratives were written by the former slaves themselves critics such as as Ephraim Peabody see this genre as “a new form of autobiography”.[8]

Here, one has to differentiate since the slave narrative is thematically more restricted thann the genre of autobiography. The autobiographical accounts of runaway and now free slaves mainly treat the time of slavery, the escape and the following life in freedom. In this frame there still is a certain margin of shaping, but because of the few differences James Olney developed a “Master Plan of Slave Narrative”.[9] Therefore, the ideal slave narrative contains the following criterions:

A. An engraved portrait, signed by the author

B. A title page that includes the claim, as an integral part of the title, “Written by Himself”

C. A handful of tesimonials and / or one or more prefaces or introductions written either by a white abolitionist friend of the narrator […] or by a white amanuensis/editor/author actually responsible for the text […], in the course of which preface the reader is told that the narrative is a “plain unvarnished tale” and that naught “has been […] drawn from the imagination[…].

D. A poetic epigraph, by preference from William Cowper.

E. The actual narrative:
1. a first sentence beginning, “I was born…”;
2. a sketchy account on parentage, often involving a white father;
3. a description of a cruel master, mistress, overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frewuently the victims;
4. an account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave – often “pure African” – who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped;
5. record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write;
6. description of a Christian slaveholder […]and the accompanying claim that ‘Christian’ slaveholders are […] worse […];
7. description of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to slaves,the work required of them, the pattern of a day, a week, a year;
8. account of a slave auction, of families being seperated and destroyed, […] of slave coffles being riven South;
9. descrption of patrols, of failed attempt(s) to escape, of pursuit by men and dogs;
10. description of succesful attempt(s) to escape, lying by during the day, travelling by night guided by the North Star, reseption in a free state by Quakers […]
11. taking of a new last name (frequently suggested by a white abolitionist) to accord with new social identity as a free man, but retention of first name as a mark of continuity of individual identity;
12. reflections on slavery.

F. An appendix or appendices composed of documentary material – bills of sale, details of purchase from slavery, newspaper items - , further reflection on slavery, sermons, anti-slavery speeches, poems, appealy to the reader for funds and moral support in the battle against slavery.

One might wonder whether this masterplan is a natural thing that just appears when a slave writes down his life. Since all slaves had been captured in the system they basically made the same experiences with slaveholders and the whole peculiar institution. Therefore, they have almost nothing else to write about. But it is also quite obvious that they all mention that there are also good white people who try to support the slaves or at least do not do any harm to them and of course that slaves are not chattel but human beings who deserve to be free.

In the northern states blacks were free but still exposed to racism. They did not have a realsitic chance of being listened to. Their only chance was the abolitionist movement. These people were not free of racism either but had already realised that slavery was a wrong and had to be abolished. These people supported the former slaves and helped them to publish their life stories. Of course, they also influenced them since most of them were analphabets and did not speak proper English. Without a proper language nobody would have read the books.

Since Jacobs was supported by people such as Amy Post it is quite obvious that she wrote for the Abolitionist movement. She focuses on the four victorian virtues piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity which stand for 19th century true womanhood. Consequently, it is quite obvious that she addresses women and since she critices the south these women are from the north and are expected to support the Abolitionist movement and therefore the Civil War which had just begun when her book was published in 1861.[10]

2. Franklin’s Autobiography

Until the publication of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography autobiographies mainly treated “soul concerns”[11] as Jonathan Edwards called them. This means, that they were mainly restricted to religious and spiritual experience. Franklin on the other hand, secularizes the gnere by not recounting religious experience although he still uses religious vocabulary. Therefore, Franklin’s Autobiography is a complete secularization of the Puritan Model. He developes a new Model, his Model Life or Life Model:

1. “Where am I from?” (modest situation)
2. “What do I want to reach?” (Freedom and Independence)
3. “How can I change my situation to reach my goal?)

(by ‘self-education’, believe in your own abilities / talents)

In this model, Franklin clearly involves deism since he only sees God as the creator who does not interfere any longer. All that matters, is what you make of your life.[12] If you want to do good, it has to be useful for society; praying is not enough. His autobiography is neither chronological nor accurate to his career. It is grounded on facts, but is also designed to show ‘the way from zero to the riches’. Therefore, Franklin’s Autobiography should rather be seen as a conduct-book in which he shows how to enrichen your life mainly by showing his errata.


[1] Cp. Pascal, p. 21.

[2] Olney, p. 148.

[3] Olney, p. 149.

[4] Cp. Pascal, p. 32.

[5] Goodwin, p. 11.

[6] Stone, p. 9.

[7] Stone, 8/ 9.

[8] Peabody, p.7.

[9] Olney, p. 53.

[10] Civil War: 1861 – 1865.

[11] Sayre, p. 35.

[12] cp. Isernhagen, p. 28.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
University of Göttingen  (Department of American Studies)
HS American Autobiographies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
578 KB
Harriet, Jacobs, Incidents, Life, Slave, Girl, American, Autobiographies
Quote paper
Katharina Heyne (Author), 2004, Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/38520


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