Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative that was published in 1861 by Harriet Ann Jacobs, using the pen name "Linda Brent". The book is an in-depth chronological account of Jacobs's life as a slave, with the decisions and choices she made to gain freedom for herself and her children. It addresses the struggles and sexual abuse that young women slaves faced on the plantations, and how these struggles were harsher than what men went through as slaves. The book is considered sentimental and written to provoke an emotional response and sympathy from the reader toward slavery in general and slave women in particular for the struggles they went through with rape, the pressure to have sex at an early age, the selling of their children, and the treatment of female slaves by their mistresses.
Jacobs began composing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl while living and working at Idlewild, the Hudson River home of writer and publisher Nathaniel Parker Willis, who was fictionalized in the book as Mr. Bruce. Portions of the book were published in serial form in the New-York Tribune, owned and edited by Horace Greeley. Jacobs's reports of sexual abuse were considered too shocking to the average newspaper reader of the day, and publication ceased before the completion of the narrative.
Boston publishing house Phillips and Samson agreed to print the work in book form if Jacobs could convince Willis or Harriet Beecher Stowe to provide a preface. She refused to ask Willis for help and Stowe turned her down, though the Phillips and Samson company closed anyway. She eventually managed to sign an agreement with the Thayer & Eldridge publishing house and they requested a preface by Lydia Maria Child. Child also edited the book and the company introduced her to Jacobs. The two women remained in contact for much of their remaining lives. Thayer & Eldridge, however, declared bankruptcy before the narrative could be published.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published as a complete work in 1861, after having been first published in serial form over several months in a newspaper called the New-York Tribune. When the book finally came out, and as it was starting to be discussed and widely distributed, the Civil War started, and had a tremendous effect on the book's resonance with the public, how widely it was distributed, and who had time to read it—everyone was busy with the war effort. The book was originally written as a way for Jacobs to get her story told, in part to help the abolitionist movement, and also to appeal to white affluent middle class women who were the ones reading this type of literature at the time. At the time the book was published the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was still in effect, making it a felony for anybody who found a runaway slave not to return the slave to the owner. The events in the book also help to highlight the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act and its effects on people in the north as well as the south.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is strongly tied to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, in terms of themes; both were written as sentimental anti-slavery books. Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin is fictional, the book addressed the notion of everyone being involved in the perpetuated cycle of chattel slavery, even women, people living in the north, and people who did not own slaves. That book resonated so well within society that some people, including President Abraham Lincoln, have said that it started the Civil War.
Born into slavery, Linda spends her early years in a happy home with her mother and father, who are relatively well-off slaves. When her mother dies, six-year-old Linda is sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who treats her well and teaches her to read. After a few years, this mistress dies and bequeaths Linda to a relative. Her new masters are cruel, and Dr. Flint, the father, takes in interest in Linda. The story continues from here.
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897) was an African American writer, who was born into slavery, but managed to gain her freedom. She was a reformer and an abolitionist speaker. In addition, under the name Linda Brent, she wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the first autobiographies about living in slavery. That narrative included her accounts of the sexual abuse female slaves suffered, as well as the struggle for freedom.