Wednesday, May 9, 2007

incidents in the life of a slave girl

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.


Radiant Times said...

Very interesting. Which class did you write the paper for? I finished my work and graduated yesterday.

The Green Chile Stew invitation still stands.

Radiant Times

Jim said...

Thanks for your comment, and congratulations on your graduation!

I wrote the paper for a course on the history of women in the United States. It's the first graduate-level history course I've taken, and the first course in women's history. One of my research areas is gender and masculinity, so this course complemented my work in several ways. Very helpful.

Radiant Times said...

History is a fascinating subject, and I think we appreciate it more the older we get. We start to see patterns and cycles as we walk through the continuum of time. I love music history and seeing the way music was affected by certain events, and also how music fomented change.

In reference to your comment on my blog - I certainly don't believe all Democrats in general hate Christians, etc, etc. Remember, satire is "a literary work in which vices, follies, stupidities, abuses, etc. are held up to ridicule and contempt." (New World Dictionary, second edition) There is a very vocal section of the Democratic party that does seem to espouse such view as are mentioned in the article. I'm thinking about the crowd, DailyKos, Democratic Underground, and others on the far left of the Democratic party. I'm thinking about a professor and department head who spoke out in a staff meeting that all Republicans should be rounded up and killed - and two of her hardest working staff were Republicans.

Republicans are also the target of satire....and we do deserve it sometimes! If satire can highlight the excesses of a political party and be a tool to pull them away from such excesses, then I welcome it. They say "if the shoe fits, wear it." - then go buy a different pair of shoes.

Thanks, Jim, for this ongoing conversation.

Radiant Times

Jim said...

I think we're probably defining satire differently. As someone who has studied satire as a literary device for years, I wouldn't define the piece you posted on your blog as satire. When I think of satire, I think of the works of such writers as Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and others. The contents of your post are little more than a series of straw men that could have been taken directly from the Sean Hannity Show (which, I assure you, is not satire).

As someone who reads Daily Kos and Move On semi-regularly and sometimes writes comments there, I wouldn't accept your characterization of these online communities as espousing anti-Christian views, or being unwilling to fight terrorism, or wanting to make guns illegal, or being unwilling to work, or wanting to collect welfare checks, or any of the rest of this army of straw men. In fact, if you read the posts at either of those sites, you'll discover that the people who post there care deeply about veterans, about families, and about defending the U.S. Constitution. They care about fighting terrorism. Most of them work long hours (myself included--I work 80 hours a week). What's hard for many Republicans to understand is that many Democrats who are politically active aren't at the "far left" of the political spectrum. In general, the "far left" won't even support Democrats--they vote Green, or Libertarian, or some other fringe party, or they won't vote at all. I recommend visiting Daily Kos and Move On every once in a while, just to get a sense of what they're up to.

I'm sympathetic to your complaint about the professor you described. I've never heard a comment as extreme as that one in either my personal or professional circles (not even when alcohol was involved!), but I've heard some stupid anti-Republican comments this semester at a faculty committee meeting. If it makes you feel any better, this faculty member has been excoriated by the other faculty members on the committee and has generally lost our respect, even though I suspect most of us are left of center politically. We are committed to making this university a safe environment for the exchange of ideas.

And yes, both Democrats and Republicans are deserving of satire. I watched an episode of "The Simpsons" the other day that brilliantly satirized left-wing literary aficionados from Vermont. It hit close to home, but it was hilarious.