I just finished a major research paper on Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), probably the best-written and most interesting, from a literary standpoint, of all the nineteenth-century slave narratives. It's the story of Linda Brent, who most scholars believe to be a pseudonym for Jacobs herself, an enslaved woman who escapes to the North in order to avoid sexual harassment by her master, Dr. Flint. Her final escape is delayed, however, and she ends up spending seven years in an attic over her grandmother's shed. The roof is leaky, and Jacobs suffers permanent physical debilitation from living in a cramped space for such a long time. She does make it to Philadelphia eventually, and she is reunited with her children. She meets Lydia Maria Child, who agrees to edit her book and write an introduction for it.
My project studies the way that Jacobs represents nature, and tries to place this representation within a historical context. For Jacobs the natural world is a terrifying place, nearly as frightening as the "howling wilderness" was for the Puritans. It is a place where one is liable to be sexually assaulted by a white slave owner, lost in a fetid swamp, or bitten by a copperhead. What was most striking for me was the rhetorical function of this vision of nature. Less than a decade after Henry David Thoreau published Walden, Jacobs reminds us that while white men in Massachusetts contemplated their bean fields from the relative comfort of their front porches, black women in North Carolina lived in a state of constant fear. The profound injustice of the system of slavery is never so clear as it is in Jacobs's narrative.
After being largely ignored for over a century since its publication, I think there will be -- and to an extent, there already is -- a resurgence in interest in this book. It's a powerful story about a women whose courage and perseverance are truly inspirational.