Harriet Jacobs’s "Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl" and Frederick Douglass’ "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass's, an American Slave"

Twin classics in African American literature?

Seminar Paper, 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Similarities

3. Family ties

4. Gender difference
4.1 Sexual exploitation
4.2 Womanhood - Manhood

5. Literacy and liberation

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind” (From the opening of the film Gone with the Wind, 1939)

"We're not Americans, we're Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn't land on Plymouth Rock - that rock landed on us.”(Malcolm X)

Besides the virtual extermination of the native Indian population it is the brutal and dreadful treatment of Afro-American slaves in the 19th century which depicts some of the darkest and saddest chapters in the history of the United States. Still today the vestiges of slavery can be felt.

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) are two autobiographies, written by two former slaves, who succeeded in escaping slavery and all its inexpressible cruelties. They are considered two of the most influential, and groundbreaking works of the Antebellum Period, which bear witness to slavery in the United States.

These two narratives “that have become twin classics in African American literature course” (cf. Boesenberg 1999: 121), shall be compared, discussed and analysed in this paper. However, Boesenberg’s classification of the texts as “twin classics” could be misread and give rise to misinterpretation, as it may not be the most fitting term. Twins are widely thought of being almost the same. One might argue that this is not entirely true for Jacobs’s and Douglass’s narratives.

The aim of this paper will be to point out some crucial similarities and differences between Douglass’s and Jacobs’s autobiographies. The first part of the paper briefly introduces some important similarities of the two narratives. In a second part focus will be given to distinctive features of these texts: family ties, gender difference, sexual exploitation, and manhood and womanhood. In a third part the motif of literacy and its meaning for the author’s liberation will be discussed. The conclusion summarizes the preceded chapters and critically disputes Boesenberg’s statement of the twin classics.

2. Similarities

At first glance, the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, and their experiences described during their lives in slavery seem to have a lot in common. Both narratives present similar problems and convey similar messages to the audience. Both authors lived during the same decade and had to endure slavery in regions of the South, Maryland and South Carolina, respectively, where slavery was asserted in the most radical and merciless manner. Both Douglass and Jacobs finally succeeded in escaping slavery and got involved in the Anti-Slavery-Movement in the Free States of the North. At first they did not feel very comfortable writing or talking about their experiences as slaves to a largely white auditorium, but they eventually became leaders in the abolitionist movement.

Like many other slaves, Douglass and Jacobs had to suffer from the early loss of their mothers. This happened at the age of six or seven, at which time they first began to realize their status as slaves. "When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave." (Jacobs 2004: 7) Although each author gives descriptions of numerous examples of the inhumanity and mischief of slavery, both of them also emphasize that in some respects they lead better and more privileged lives than most other slaves. During their later childhood years, for example, they shared a common experience, namely a beneficial relationship with a kind mistress who taught them to read and write. At the time this was a privilege, rarely falling to the lot of a slave (cf. Jacobs 2004: 8). As we shall see later on in chapter three, literacy was to become one of the determining factors for both their physical and intellectual emancipation. Moreover, literacy eventually played a very important role in their decision to escape. Nevertheless, most of the experiences and incidents portrayed in their narratives can be viewed as representative of the nineteenth century Afro American slave.

As can be seen, there are indeed some similarities between Douglass’s and Jacobs’s narratives. However, as Stephen Matterson properly recognizes, there are some crucial differences between them which “seem so substantial as almost to invalidate any grounds for meaningful comparison” (Matterson 1999: 82). Some of the most important distinguishing features shall be discussed in the following chapters.

3. Family ties

Jacobs’s Incidents is more focused on the family and gives more emphasis on the role of the woman than Douglass’s Narrative. Even in the most hopeless moments in her narrative Jacobs describes that she always enjoyed, and was supported by the presence of a caring family around her. Her aunts, uncles, cousins, her grandmother, and especially her children gave her strength and stamina at all times, and her family was a main concern throughout the entire narrative. Whereas in Douglass autobiography, no such strong family ties are portrayed. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; […] My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant – before I knew her as my mother. […] Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger" (Douglass 2004: 18f). There are different propositions made by Douglass as far as his father’s identity is concerned. In the three autobiographies that he wrote he provides a different account of his father.[1] In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the one this paper refers to, Douglass states that all he knows about his father is that he was a white man. (ibid).

Notwithstanding Jacobs lost her mother at about the same age as Douglass, Jacobs’s feelings towards her mother, at the beginning of her autobiography, were not described as indifferent as those of Douglass. “I grieved for her, and my young mind was troubled with the thought who would now take care of me and my little brother.” (Jacobs 2004: 133) Jacobs father suddenly died soon after she had become the property of Dr. Flint’s little daughter. Jacobs recalls that she was going to go to her father’s house the day after, but was not allowed to. Filled with grief and anger, she cynically posed the question. “What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property” (ibid: 137).

Soon after the death of her mother, Jacobs was given into the hands of her grandmother, who she called Aunt Marthy and who “had as much as possible, been a mother to her orphan grandchildren” (Gibson 1996: 165).

The relation between Jacobs and her grandmother, which would prove to be a most beneficial gift for her, describes another significant way in which Douglass’s and Jacob’s experiences differ.[2] From the beginning of her narrative throughout the entire text, Jacobs expresses her gratitude towards this family member, who was of the utmost significance to her. “To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts” (Jacobs 2004: 133). “She was so loving, so sympathizing! She always met us with a smile, and listened with patience to all our sorrows . She spoke so hopefully, that unconsciously the clouds gave place to sunshine” (ibid: 147). Even though Jacobs did not always agree with her grandmother in every single matter, the importance of aunt Marthy for her cannot be overestimated.[3]

Joanne Braxton even argues that “without her example and her brilliant organization of Linda’s support system, escape for Linda would have been impossible” (Braxton 1989: 30). Donald B. Gibson also recognizes the grandmother’s being most valuable attachment figure for Jacobs by assigning her to the role of the lacking mother. “The space given to the grandmother”, reports Gibson, “is in effect space given to the mother, since the relationship between Harriet and her grandmother is more like that between mother and child than otherwise” (Gibson 1996: 165).

In contrast to Jacobs, Douglass did not enjoy the support of such an invaluable companion. Although Douglass also had a grandmother, he failed to maintain contact with her, since she lived far away. As far as his two sisters and his brother are concerned, Douglass notes that the early separation from their mother tainted their relationship in their memories. (cf. Douglass 2004: 41). Not only did Douglass not have such strong family ties like Jacobs. He also had to undergo a traumatic experience as a young boy when witnessing the bloody whipping and torture of his aunt Hester. Douglass describes this experience as “the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery” (ibid: 21). In contrast to Jacobs, the lack of the familial and also the communal assistance, which Jacobs received, and what Joanne Braxton calls “the fruit of a collective effort”, forces Douglass to escape from slavery without support and in a relatively independent manner (cf. Braxton 1989: 19).


[1] These are: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

[2] Joanne Braxton, in her article “Outraged Mother and Articulate Heroin: Linda Brent and the Slave Narrative Genre” very well describes in detail the traits of Linda’s grandmother: “Aunt Marthy, a free woman, becomes Linda’s sustaining force and primary role model. Intelligent, self-sufficient, quick-witted, pious, protective, nurturing, and morally strict, Aunt Marthy is also wise, noble, and courageous. Aunt Marthy herself is an outraged mother. Skilled in the use of invective and insult, as well as silence, Aunt Marthy successfully confronts Dr. Flint at crucial points in the narrative; she sasses him, she outwits him, and she provides food and shelter for both Linda and Linda’s children. Aunt Marty is, in short, the bearer of a system of values as well as the carrier of the female version of the black heroic archetype. Aunt Marthy teaches and demonstrates the values and practical principles of sacrifice and survival” (Braxton 1989: 30).

[3] Aunt Marthy’s significance for Jacobs becomes clear in several situations, for example when Jacobs overcomes with guilt because of her grandmother's disapproval of her sexual relationship with the father of her children.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Harriet Jacobs’s "Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl" and Frederick Douglass’ "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass's, an American Slave"
Twin classics in African American literature?
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
PSII: Captivity Narratives
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
560 KB
Twin, African, American, Harriet, Jacobs’s, Incidents, Life, Slave, Girl, Frederick, Douglass’s, Narrative, Life, Frederick, Douglass, American, Slave, PSII, Captivity, Narratives
Quote paper
Markus Bulgrin (Author), 2006, Harriet Jacobs’s "Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl" and Frederick Douglass’ "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass's, an American Slave", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/73239


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