Harriet Jacobs, on the other hand, began her narrative around 1853, after she had lived as a fugitive slave in the North for ten years.She began working privately on her narrative not long after Cornelia Grinnell Willis purchased her freedom and gave her secure employment as a domestic servant in New York City.The need to accomplish the form’s most important goal—an end to slavery—took narrators back to the world that had enslaved them, as they were called upon to provide accurate reproductions of both the places and the experiences of the past they had fled.
One of the most important elements that developed within the narratives was a “literacy” scene in which the narrator explained how he or she came to be able to do something that proslavery writers often declared was impossible: to read and write.
Authenticity was paramount, but readers also looked for excitement, usually provided through dramatic details of how the slave managed to escape from his/her owners.
Douglass was a publicly acclaimed figure from almost the earliest days of his career as a speaker and then a writer.
Harriet Jacobs, on the other hand, was never well-known.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl did not fictionalize or even sensationalize any of the facts of Jacobs’s experience, yet its author, using pseudonyms for all of her “characters,” did create what William Andrews has called a “novelistic” discourse, including large segments of dialogue among characters.
Jacobs used the devices of sentimental fiction to target the same white, female, middle-class, northern audiences who had been spellbound by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet her narrative also shows that she was unwilling to follow, and often subverted, the genre’s promotion of “true womanhood,” a code of behavior demanding that women remain virtuous, meek, and submissive, no matter what the personal cost.“Discovered” and hired to lecture on the abolitionist circuit by William Lloyd Garrison in 1841, three years after he had made his escape from Baltimore, Douglass developed rhetorical devices common to sermons and orations and carried these over to his narrative, which abounds with examples of repetition, antithesis, and other classical persuasive strategies.His narrative was the culmination of his speech-making career, reflecting his mastery of a powerful preaching style along with the rhythms and imagery of biblical texts that were familiar to his audiences.Some of the differences in the readership and reception of Jacobs’s 1861 narrative and Douglass’s first, 1845 autobiography (he wrote two more, in 18, the latter expanded in 1892) reflect simply the differing literary and political circumstances that prevailed at the time of their construction and publication.When Douglass published his Narrative of the Life, the Abolitionist movement was beginning to gain political force, while the long-delayed publication of Jacobs’s Incidents in 1861 was overshadowed by the start of the Civil War.They also insisted on adding their own authenticating endorsements to the slaves’ narrations through prefaces and introductions.Yet for the writers themselves, the opportunity to tell their stories constituted something more personal: a means to write an identity within a country that legally denied their right to exist as human beings.Jacobs’s manuscript, finished around four years later but not published for four more, reflects in part the style, tone, and plot of what has been called the sentimental or domestic novel, popular fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, written by and for women, that stressed home, family, womanly modesty, and marriage.In adapting her life story to this genre, Jacobs drew on women writers who were contemporaries and even friends, including well-known writers Lydia Maria Child and Fanny Fern (her employer’s sister in law), but she was also influenced by the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in 1851.Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: American Slave Narrators Lucinda Mac Kethan Alumni Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, North Carolina State University National Humanities Center Fellow ©National Humanities Center During the last three decades of legal slavery in America, from the early 1830s to the end of the Civil War in 1865, African American writers perfected one of the nation’s first truly indigenous genres of written literature: the North American slave narrative.The genre achieves its most eloquent expression in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.