My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reviewing or criticizing non-fictional documents of an experience such as slavery seems like a category mistake. But in the case of this book, the moral sense as it encounters a testament to suffering does not come into conflict with the aesthetic sense, which desires to find in any autobiography or memoir a life artfully shaped in language, regardless of moral or political worthiness.
Contra some reviewers here, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is certainly not boring. It is a very carefully constructed rhetorical appeal, modeled on sentimental fiction, to the virtuous middle-class white women of the North. The book’s first two thirds alternate between the story of Jacobs’s enslavement and escape and a broader selection of similar or worse stories of enslaved men and women. While it is not pleasant to say so, there is a no doubt tactical element to this narrative of almost titillating revelation, a promise to the white Northern reader that the shocking and forbidden sexual secrets of slavery will now be revealed. The narrative presents a consistent picture of slavery as a sexual inferno, a pornotopia in which black women are reduced to their bodies and white men reduced to their appetites so that all are made inhuman by sick contortions of desire unbounded by Christian morality. Jacobs’s authorial voice is one of violated rectitude. Raised by an unstintingly moral grandmother, Jacobs is nevertheless thrust into the sexually exploitative hell that is the life of the enslaved woman. Morals have no chance in a world where property relations have interfered with what should be, according to Christian ethics, intersubjective relations. As Jacobs puts it: “Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities.”
The picture at the center of the narrative is an unforgettable image of humanity under oppression, reduced to the minimal condition of life even while struggling for more than mere survival: the fugitive Jacobs relegated for seven years to a dark attic loft three feet high, sustained in this trial by commitment to the freedom of her children.
The implied political ideology of the narrative is perhaps anachronistic now, though it is not less thought-provoking for that. Today we tend to regard slavery as an inextricable part of capitalism (see here, e.g.), but Jacobs presents it, in line with the consensus of the enlightened 19th-century intelligentsia, as a barbaric survival of pre-modern elements, as when she compares it to the Inquisition. Indeed, Jacobs shows that the enslaved suffer from a lack of capitalism, in that they are not able to hold their own property, which right alone would allow them to defend themselves from the predations of rapist masters. Regarding human beings as property is here considered as a backward error that can be corrected by adopting the standards of wage-labor for all. This is made explicit in the late chapter when Jacobs, now free and in the employ of Mr. Bruce (really the prominent editor and writer Nathaniel Parker Willis), visits England and compares the state of its peasantry with American slaves:
We next went to Steventon, in Berkshire. It was a small town, said to be the poorest in the county. I saw men working in the fields for six shillings, and seven shillings, a week, and women for sixpence, and sevenpence, a day, out of which they boarded themselves. Of course they lived in the most primitive manner; it could not be otherwise, where a woman’s wages for an entire day were not sufficient to buy a pound of meat. They paid very low rents, and their clothes were made of the cheapest fabrics, though much better than could have been procured in the United States for the same money. I had heard much about the oppression of the poor in Europe. The people I saw around me were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky, and driven and slashed by an overseer, through heat and cold, till the stars shone out again. Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. They must separate to earn their living; but the parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters. The relations of husband and wife, parent and child, were too sacred for the richest noble in the land to violate with impunity. Much was being done to enlighten these poor people. Schools were established among them, and benevolent societies were active in efforts to ameliorate their condition. There was no law forbidding them to learn to read and write; and if they helped each other in spelling out the Bible, they were in no danger of thirty-nine lashes, as was the case with myself and poor, pious, old uncle Fred. I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants was a thousand fold better off than the most pampered American slave.
This book did not receive its due in literary history until the 1970s, when feminist scholars rescued from neglect and condescension 18th- and 19th-century women’s fiction and its ideological deployment of sentimentalism to create the female subject as bearer of certain political rights, the right to an inviolable body above all. While Jacobs arguably subverts this Victorian form of feminism by showing it to be a privilege enjoyed only by middle-class white women, her narrative also relies on the ethos of this Christian sentimental worldview to ensure that the pious white woman reader will be shocked from her hypocritical complacency toward the oppression of black people. Jacobs’s use and subversion of the sentimental narrative are encapsulated in the narrative’s most famous sentence, which heads its penultimate paragraph: “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage.” In making all of these historical-aesthetic observations, I do not mean to disparage Jacobs’s narrative; on the contrary, I am struck by the deftness and care of its construction, by its ability to reach across more than a century to present scenes and imagery still horrifying today in plain but stately prose, a prose not only devoted to storytelling but also rich in ironic commentary on the ideological delusions of a Christian slaveholding nation and marked by consistent philosophical reflection on how a morally disordered society may be righted. Not every narrative of any type or on any topic is still readable and instructive a century and a half after its composition, but this one certainly is.