Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs

>> Sunday, March 09, 2014

TITLE: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
AUTHOR: Harriet Ann Jacobs

PAGES: 246
PUBLISHER: Project Gutenberg

SETTING: Mid 19th century US
TYPE: Memoir

This autobiographical account by a former slave is one of the few extant narratives written by a woman. Written and published in 1861, it delivers a powerful portrayal of the brutality of slave life. Jacobs speaks frankly of her master's abuse and her eventual escape, in a tale of dauntless spirit and faith..

This was my book club's choice for November last year. The title is pretty self-explanatory: it's a former slave's account of her life. Right from the start, Jacobs (writing under a pseudonym, Linda Brent) tells us exactly what she's set out to accomplish. This is intended to be a call to arms, to convince Northern women that they should support ending the practice of sending runaway slaves back to the South. So the first thing I wondered was: would the narrative work well on its own now, as a read for someone who doesn't need to be convinced? I'm afraid it didn't.

There were some things about it (or, at least, the first half, which was what I read) that I thought were really good. I had a similar experience to when I've read in the past about huge things like the Holocaust, where I know they were horrendous and evil, but don't really think about the details on a day-to-day basis. When I do, by reading a book like this, even if I don't learn something new and it's all things I knew about already, the reality of the enormity of what we're talking about really hits me.

I was also fascinated by the sideways, delicate manner in which she writes about her owner's constant sexual harassment and rape threats. I'm assuming she's had to write it that way to avoid offending these Northern women she's trying to convince, to avoid appearing vulgar and indelicate in front of them, which indirectly says almost as much about Jacobs' world as what she says directly.

All that said, the book didn't work for me well as a 'read', as much as I appreciated its value as a historical document. It just felt completely off. No, I'm not going to go into that stupid, racist "it's too well-written to have been written by a slave" sort of argument I've seen in some goodreads reviews (ffs!). What I mean is that the characters and the events in the narrative sometimes felt presented in a way that was a bit too calculated to appeal to 19th century sensibilities. On one hand, I think that's absolutely fine. The point of this book was to change the minds of a particular kind of 19th century woman: liberal enough that reading this would make her want to convince her husband and relatives that things needed to change, but at the same time a woman who was very respectable, a pillar of the community type, otherwise her husband and relatives would not have the power to change the law at all. So of course, Jacobs would want to present things in a way that would move them. Unfortunately for me, the way she chose to do so was by using saccharine sentimentality and making her characters so one-note that they felt completely unreal and made me lose interest.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF, having read over half of it.


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