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Voix afro-américaines. Les Afro-américains : la voix de l’esclavage

Biography versus Fiction or the Value of Testimony in Jacobs’s and Stowe’s Narratives about Slavery

(Auto)biographie contre fiction ou la valeur du témoignage dans les récits d’esclavages de Jacobs et de Stowe
Anne Garrait-Bourrier
p. 31-47


Cette étude comparée a pour projet de souligner les différences culturelles qui existent entre deux genres littéraires de la période antebellum : les récits d’esclaves et la fiction abolitionniste. Via l’approche d’extraits de textes tirés de l’autobiographie d’Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, écrite sous le pseudonyme de Linda Brent et du roman de Harriet Beecher-Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin, nous soulignerons le témoignage historique commun qui ressort de ces deux textes. Bien que d’essence et de sources différentes, ces deux récits – celui de l’ancienne esclave et celui de l’intellectuelle blanche – offrent une image authentique de l’histoire américaine d’avant guerre civile essentielle et dénoncent le même fléau: l’esclavage.

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Index chronologique :

19th century, XIXe siècle
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  • 1  We will use both names in this paper. Jacobs will be used to talk about the author of the narrativ (...)
  • 2  In 1859, Amy Post wrote: “The author of this book is my highly-esteemed friend. If its readers kne (...)

1This comparative textual analysis aims to show the cultural differences between the two main literary genres of the American antebellum period: slave narratives and abolitionist fiction. Via the parallel study of extracts taken from Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written under the pseudonym of Linda Brent1, and from Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we will attempt to highlight the value of historical testimonies in the achieving of freedom and the crucial part played by literature in this period of American history. We are faced here with two very different types of both writing and authors: the black former slave, with the memory of slavery and of the plantation in her blood, and the white religious abolitionist, from an intellectually-privileged social background. Despite these cultural divergences, they have chosen to talk about the same issue and to denounce the same barbarous system: slavery. Even if their backgrounds do not coincide, their womanhood and inherent human awareness prompt them to use words as weapons to testify to the realities of sexism and abuse in nineteenth-century America. Within a period of ten years, Jacobs and Stowe deliver a vibrant and energetic human message to the world, drawn from their personal experience of suffering and from their intuition of the plight of women. Jacobs and Stowe had a direct literary relationship, covered in Jacobs’s 1853 correspondence with Amy Post, a member of the “Society of Friends” in the State of New York. Jacobs was very much involved and known in New York, Rochester and in the Boston-area white abolitionist circles, as her friendship with Amy Post2 and Lydia Maria Child’s introduction to her narrative establish. Nevertheless, the testimonies are the products of two different cultures which merge into one single purpose: the quest for freedom through literature.

Narrative techniques and the treatment of History: two different approaches

  • 3  The mass circulation of slave narratives began in the early 1830s and approximately 50 major narra (...)
  • 4  Walter Teller, Introduction to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Harcourt Brace, 19 (...)

2Harriet Jacobs published her book in 1861, i.e. nine years after the release of Beecher-Stowe’s tremendous literary success. Harriet Jacobs, who was well-read and who knew Stowe personally, was undoubtedly acquainted with Stowe’s book and influenced by it in the writing of her own testimony. If intertextuality is a matter of cultural influence, it seems obvious that some of Stowe’s creation can be detected in Jacobs’s text. But intertextuality is not a negative creative process, as plagiarism can be: it can also be a path to freedom of speech by the acquisition of efficient techniques of writing. Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, although sharing with Stowe’s the same personal expression and liberation, is highly independent and original. If we examine the tables of contents and prefaces of the two texts we notice that Jacobs indeed used her knowledge of literature as a technical basis to give form to her text: typical slave narratives do not have either tables of contents or prefaces to introduce and present the plot, which is approximately always the same, at a dramatic level. Jacobs, however, knows how to transform her narrative into a real book, how to capture the real events of her life and transform them into fiction in order to give them the impact which is necessary to move the general public3. She even gives titles to each of her adventures, sometimes exciting ones like “The Slave Who Dared to Feel like a Man” (chapter IV), which Stowe also does with each of her fictional chapters. Even in the main title of the narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we can observe Jacobs’s technical expertise, as she has chosen something totally different from the usual titles provided by slave-writers (e.g. The Narrative of..., The Life of..., The Adventures of ... written by himself). From the outset, she tries to attract the reader’s eye, to entice him. She knows that her background of slavery will not be sufficient in itself. She needs to bring artificiality to her autobiography. She even changes the names of the protagonists in her text, as well as her own, for “Linda Brent’s flight had involved a number of people, any of whom, black or white, if identified could have been brutally treated”4. Of course, she wants to protect her family from Dr. Norcom, her master in the 1840s and 1850s, but this process also adds drama to the text, as if the characters described had a fictional dimension.

3In her table of contents, she also adopts an authorial tone, a sort of distant voice, especially in the title of chapter X, “A Perilous Passage in the Slave Girl’s Life”, in which she pretends to be narrating the story of another character, just as a fiction writer would do. The influence of conventional sentimental literature can clearly be felt in Jacobs’s creation, but as soon as the reader enters the text, things change. As Karen Sanchez-Eppler and Jean Yellin have suggested, creating a sentimental antislavery discourse was coherent with white middle-class women’s social role. Stowe belonged to this trend. For Jacobs, as a former slave, the goal was not the same. In the preface, the difference in writing techniques between Jacobs and Stowe becomes obvious.

  • 5  Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Oxford: OUP, 1998, 3.
  • 6  Harriet Jacobs/Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973, (...)

4In a highly moral and sentimental manner, Stowe informs the reader that “the object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us”5. As for her, Jacobs writes at the end of her preface: “I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself [...]. It would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history”6. As a matter of fact, Jacobs does not want her readers to feel sympathy. She wants them to know everything about slavery. In this way, she seeks to be efficient but not over-sentimental. She even uses the word “sketches” in her preface and table of contents, a word which chronologically belongs to Stowe, as a way to give weight to a testimony which has become her only personal way to reach salvation and catharsis.

  • 7  H. Stowe, op.cit., 3.
  • 8 Idem.
  • 9  J. Yellin, Introduction and Notes to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, New York: OUP, 1998, 19.

5Stowe does not play with her own life when she writes, she does not take any risks—apart from challenging the political world and, more generally, the Southerners. Yet, she does have a moral aim; she wants to give a realistic description of how unfairly the Blacks are treated by a “dominant Anglo-Saxon race”7, the power of which she does not even think of disputing. This may be a little upsetting to the modern reader, detached from the political context of the period. Her text would probably have reached a higher degree of moral strength if she had actually challenged the supposedly intrinsic power the Whites had over those she calls the “Africans”8. Trapped within the prejudices inculcated by her own “White Anglo-Saxon” education, she turns out to be less free than Linda Brent when she writes about repression: “Her color scheme is rigid. Black people are inevitably subservient; ‘mixed race’ characters combine the sensitivity of their black mothers with the strength of their white fathers. Unlike the characters in the slave narratives, the slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin show their true faces to their masters”9.

  • 10  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 13.

6To the reader, it thus becomes increasingly evident that the books have been written by women with very different backgrounds. Jacobs, despite using various literary techniques to give her book some artistic substance, is ashamed of her status as a former slave, “I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances”10. Stowe on the other hand glorifies literature and poetry, using them as ideal weapons against injustice, as she is proud of being a scholar. Her main difficulty is the question of authenticity, which is Brent’s main asset.

  • 11 Idem.

7Stowe chooses the word “sketches” not as a literary argument, but as a proof of the validity of her discourse. The “sketch” was a very famous literary genre in nineteenth century America (e.g. Washington Irving’s “Sketch Book”) as it provided the reader with a very immediate graphic vision of a culture. Very brief and undramatic, the sketch was adapted to this revolutionary period of quick mutations and transitions. Like other writers (for instance, Melville whose short-stories and sketches denounced slavery through metaphors and allegories), Stowe wanted her book to be read with a view to moral and political enlightenment. She wanted to convey a message; she was a committed intellectual wishing to be useful. Nevertheless, although sincere, her writing is rather too full of Christian indignation. Jacobs also mentions the religious strength of her personal experience of suffering but unlike Stowe, she does not want to convince her potential reader that God is the solution. She just hopes he might help: “May the blessing of God rest on the imperfect effort on behalf of my persecuted people!”11. In her preface, Stowe is more detached from the realities of slavery because she wants above all to convey a religious message, which is not an easy task in such a context. Always trying to be convincing, she ends her preface with a six-line poem dealing with God’s delivering the “needy and the poor”. To Jacobs, the needy and the poor are the slaves who should be helped by other men first. This is the gist of her personal message. Both women use the medium of words to convey a moral and human message: Jacobs wishes she were more of an intellectual and Stowe wishes she were more authentic. The texts complement each other and offer a clear vision of the antebellum period and of its history.

  • 12  H. Stowe, op.cit., 344.
  • 13  For comments on Cathy Davidson’s or Ann Douglass’s readership preferences, see Sarah Robbins, “Gen (...)

8As a matter of fact, history is mentioned in the table of contents of both texts. In Jacobs’s book, the Fugitive Slave Law is clearly referred to in chapter XL. Passed in 1850, this law strengthened the repressive measures against the slaves trying to flee to the North through the escaping network of the Underground Railroad. This law resulted from a political decision by Daniel Webster which rendered the Civil War unavoidable and Jacobs uses the enactment of this legislation to show the negative repercussions legal changes had on the daily lives of slaves. For her, it is another real example of what slavery was like in the 1850s and 1860s. As for Stowe, she refers to a different specific historical phenomenon: “The Middle Passage”, chapter XXXI. Her choice is much more dramatic. She uses this phenomenon which started in the seventeenth century and continued into the nineteenth century, because it is the ideal dramatic background to present the despair, dehumanization and suffering of her Christ-like character Tom, “on the lower part of a small mean boat, on the Red River, Tom sat, chains on his wrists, chains on his feet”12. This excerpt, like many others, is written in a melodramatic tone likely to please the general public of the time, very much attracted to sensationalism and sentimentalism13. Jacobs concentrates much more on the externalization of her own traumas and she does not need to overstate what is already beyond human thought. She was a victim of slavery, but as she never had to experience the “Middle Passage”, the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to America, there is no point in her mentioning it.

  • 14  H. Stowe, op.cit., 18.

9History is also used as a backdrop in Stowe’s chapter “The Mother”: Eli Whitney’s invention, the cotton gin, is referred to as being the result of “mechanical genius”. Given the fact that Stowe certainly knew the impact this invention had on the intensive development of cotton-growing, we can wonder why she uses such a historical reference without criticizing its effect on the expansion of slavery in the South. On the contrary, she projects this event onto her slave character George Harris who is said to have invented a machine to clean the hemp and thus to spare the slaves some work and facilitate their life on the plantation. Nothing is said about the possible consequences in the increase in production such an invention could bring. Only Mr. Harris, who is George’s stupid master, says out of mere jealousy: “O, yes!—a machine for saving work, is it? [...] They are all labor-saving machines themselves, everyone of ‘em”14. Had he been a clever man, like the manufacturer, he would have seen the possibilities of expansion and enrichment linked to the use of this machine. Stowe, though she stands on the side of the “clever people”, does not seem to see that each industrial improvement is a threat to the slaves as it entails a desire for over-productivity on the planter’s part and thus an intensification of the “peculiar institution” and a worsening of the slaves’ working conditions.

10Harriet Jacobs, in her chapter “The New Tie to Life”, also dealing with motherhood and thus dramatically very close to Stowe’s “The Mother”, does not mention any specific historical event. She describes her daily life as a slave and seems to live history from within. Her status as an autodiegetic writer gives it real weight: history and story becoming one and thus very influential on the reader’s mind. She does not even think about analyzing the system she lives in. Her book is not some distant sociological research on the good and evil of slavery. All she does is cautiously describe all the minute and repetitive abuse her master daily inflicts on her, which in itself is a very efficient visualization of slavery:

  • 15  Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, New York: Penguin, 1993, 125.

Sex between white men and black women was a routine feature of life on many, perhaps most, slave-holdings, as masters, their teenage sons and, on large holdings, their overseers took advantage of the situation to engage in the kind of casual, emotionless sex on demand unavailable from white women. What was routine and casual to white men caused anguish to black women, anguish graphically described by Harriet Jacobs in her searing autobiography15.

  • 16  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 63.

11Jacobs’s thoughts about slavery are those of a tired and distressed woman about to lose hope in humanity and in God: “Alas, what mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery”16.

12The treatment of history, when considered as a means to reach one’s goal, which seems to be Stowe’s technique, proves less convincing than history treated as an internal process of evolution imposed on the beings by facts themselves. Novel-writing as propagandistic historiography seems to have less credibility than novel-writing as an intellectual and spiritual response to current history.

Human relationships: womanhood as a cultural link between the two authors

  • 17  H. Stowe, op.cit., 19.

13Stowe’s chapter, “The Mother”, presents woman as part of an organized family structure, accepted by the masters as being “normal”. This chapter shows the mother as a character deprived of any real emotional strength. The text expresses her happiness but neglects to mention her despair after the loss of her two babies. Such experiences are highly traumatic for a woman and even if Eliza’s sorrow is mentioned it seems to be alleviated by her faith in God17. Jacobs’s vision of motherhood, in “The New Tie to Life”, is very different; the father of her child is a white man who does not live on the plantation. He just appears once, very briefly, and cannot take care of the baby as he does not “own” him. She is alone during her pregnancy, totally depressed by the regular oppressive visits of her tyrannical and abusive master. Her stressful condition is very humanely described, in simple words. Paradoxically, Linda Brent, the narrator-character, appears both strong and weak when she speaks about her son. She is a woman who feels the instinctive love that a mother has for her baby and at the same time, unconsciously dreams of her baby’s death as his only way out of slavery. She is so honest and right that any woman reading her testimony can identify with her plight. There is no such mirror effect with Eliza, who really appears as a “character”, depicted from a distance, probably too serene to be true in such a context. Brent/Jacobs never uses the word “happiness” probably because she does not know its meaning: “life, death, pain, love” are the most common words used by a woman fighting for freedom.

  • 18  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 62.

14In Stowe’s chapter “The Mother”, the part played by the father is quite important; he is the key character, bringing support and happiness. This vision is stereotyped, as if Stowe were projecting her own perception of a patriarchal world onto her fiction. The mother and the child live through the father. Jacobs’s reality is very different. The power belongs to the master, in a very dramatized way: he owns the mother and the child, even if he is not the biological father. This is the reality of slavery and Stowe does not mention it in clear words, though the reader knows Eliza’s son is about to be sold by the master, Mr. Shelby. On the other hand, Jacobs’s father figure is her brother William, also owned by Dr. Flint and compelled to harass her on behalf of his master. The family structure, so crucial in the building of a cultural identity, is totally destroyed in Jacobs’s book. The human links are distorted by the very system of slavery whereas Stowe presents the slave family structure as copied from the white one according to the stereotype of the paternalistic system of the Southern planters. Stowe chooses to situate Eliza’s world in this reassuring context, even if she shows its limitations and does not try to present it as being ideal: the Shelbys are patronizing and do not really try to avoid selling Eliza and her son, even though Mrs. Shelby remains sympathetic and kind. Jacobs shows slavery as it really is, beyond all stereotypes, that is to say in the privacy and promiscuity of the master’s house. The slave—whatever his /her sex and age—is nothing more than a possession. This status is evoked by Stowe through the attitude of George’s master. Jacobs describes it from within. She cannot easily admit she is able and allowed to give life to a child because she does not have the feeling she is alive herself: “I had often prayed for death; but now I did not want to die unless my child could die too”. She feels sorry for her brother because he has no personal identity as a human being, “he was a slave and obliged to obey his master’s will”18. Shown through the intimate thinking process of a female slave, the “peculiar institution” undoubtedly appears as a heartless dehumanizing system whereas under Stowe’s pen, it appears as a socio-political phenomenon which is too far from her Christian tenets to be accepted as such. Both texts share the same ideal and serve the same purpose, although Stowe writes as an act of religious devotion—“God’s hand wrote this book”, she stated in 1853 in her famous literary self-explanation A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Nevertheless, she remains polemical in her approach whereas Jacobs does not look for any political recognition. She does not write as an abolitionist but as a committed witness—her book is a personal liberation.

15Even in chapters apparently devoted to the male protagonists—the lover, the husband—women are given pride of place. Both books show how impossible it is for the slaves living on the plantation to experience long-term, free, love, whatever their living conditions and their links with the master’s family. In the chapters supposedly devoted to male slaves as seen in the titles, “The Lover”, “The Husband and Father”, women are shown as the central victims of the inaccessibility of love.

  • 19  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 36.
  • 20  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 41.

16Strangely enough, Jacobs’s chapter about a loving relationship, “The Lover”, is more analytical than Stowe’s, and her viewpoint is exclusively feminine, which is quite logical as she cannot have inner focalization of her lover’s feelings. Brent is and remains an intradiegetic narrator and speaks for herself. Stowe’s internally focalized vision of love is shared by two “married” characters, George and Eliza. Even if Eliza is physically present in the scene, she serves as a foil for her husband’s anger and frustration. Stowe describes one specific situation without trying to analyze it whereas Jacobs wonders why love seems impossible to attain: “Why does the slave ever love?”19. This impossible fusion between the male slave and his lover is thus shown on two different levels. In Jacobs’s text, her affair with “the lover” could have been possible under other circumstances and with the agreement of the master. Both protagonists love each other dearly and have made plans together. Yet, the other key element separating them is their difference in status: she is a slave and he is a free Black. He could buy her but has no money so she remains her master’s possession. Any resulting children would belong to Dr. Flint: “If we had children, I knew they must ‘follow the condition of the mother’”20. It thus becomes impossible for them to carry on loving each other.

  • 21  H. Stowe, op.cit., 23.
  • 22  M. Child, op.cit., 11.
  • 23  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 38.
  • 24  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 39.

17In Stowe’s vision of love, both characters seem to live in more satisfactory conditions. They do not share the same roof but pretend to live as a married couple, yet we slowly discover that what looks like a family is not one: “Don’t you know a slave can’t be married? There is no law in this country for that”21. This marriage is a fake one, with no legitimacy whatsoever. Even if Eliza seems to find the situation acceptable, George’s personality is very different from hers. Their conception of the world is not the same: she is a Christian and he does not believe in God. In the world of the plantation such a difference can impede love, and to George, salvation lies in action rather than in prayers. Love between a Christian and a non-believer is impossible for Stowe. Even among slaves, there are huge religious and social gaps preventing free love. Moreover, in both situations, the master plays the same separating function. Jacobs’s master has a very ambiguous position in relation to his female slave. He thinks he possesses her and develops a feeling of jealousy toward her black lover. “Loving” her is his own prerogative, in spite of the presence of his wife who is also described as a jealous person. Linda Brent is an object of desire and jealousy for her masters, which elevates her above the rank of a mere chattel. The master is allowed to possess her body but he cannot have access to her heart and he is strangely upset by this impossibility. Ironically enough, he himself is deprived of the right to be loved, which in literature can be termed as a romantic situation: “I believe those who know her will not be disposed to doubt about her veracity, though some incidents in her story are more romantic than fiction”22. Flint has the power to beat her but not to make her submit: “Do you love this nigger?/ Yes, sir/ How dare you tell me so!”23. Her love for a poor black man is something the master rejects as abnormal and disgusting. Linda—Jacobs’s alter ego—is stronger and more independent than he, for he remains tied to his family obligations and prejudices. She has power over him and this is absolutely impossible for him to admit, provoking his anger and frustration. He chooses to distort reality: “You have been the plague of my life. I have wanted to make you happy, and you have repaid with the basest ingratitude; but though you have proved yourself incapable of appreciating my kindness, I will be lenient towards you, Linda. I will give you once more chance to redeem you […]. Never let me hear that fellow’s name mentioned again”24. He prefers to keep her away from her lover, which she analyses as evidence of his hatred, but which might be proof of his weakness. He is in fact a pathetic man living in sentimental misery but he is too much of a coward to be pitied by the reader.

  • 25  H. Stowe, op.cit., 21.

18Stowe’s vision of the master is also quite cruel and realistic. George can no longer accept the unfair domination of his master and more particularly of his master’s son over his family. He is aware of his own qualities as a human being, which does not seem to be the case for Linda. He thus rejects the idea that because he is black, he must be submitted to another man’s will: “I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does”25. His personality is described in strong and well-chosen words, which makes this protagonist easy to identify with. He is a very rebellious young man who resembles Linda Brent in many ways. As in the preceding chapter about the mother, Stowe chooses to insist on the husband’s temper and persona whereas the woman, as she is a Christian and thus against any rebellious idea, is depicted in a more insipid way. The master’s son is only evoked by George but the reader sees that Stowe adheres to the stereotyped vision of the nasty master, using his power to humiliate the slaves. It is because of his master’s lack of intelligence and humanity that George can no longer bear his life as it is and chooses another life, sacrificing—for a short period of time—his wife and son for the sake of honor and integrity. Such a choice, because it implies desertion, would not be made by a woman. As we will see later, women need time before they escape and always choose to do so for their children. In both texts, and regarding loving relationships between slaves, the master is always an agent of humiliation, of debasement and of separation.

Literature as a metaphor for escaping

19The only human relationship likely to exist on the plantation is the mother-child or brother-sister link: this blood tie is not as subversive and dangerous as romantic love. It cannot be fought against because it survives separation and encourages an acceptance of one’s fate. On the other hand, romantic—sexual—love brings one close to freedom, inner freedom. This is why, for the sake of discipline, the master supervises the sexual involvements of his female slaves and oversees the personal lives of the couples living on his plantation. Symbolically, love is a way to achieve internal freedom and in such an oppressive context the masters cannot let love expand and develop. Stowe and Jacobs seem to come to the same conclusion: if love is made impossible by slavery, escaping from slavery might be the solution. When human feelings are at stake, they can be seen to share the same creeds and their cultural differences are transcended by their belonging to the same essence, that is womanhood.

20In both texts, escape is presented as the ultimate choice left to the slave who is deeply unhappy with his condition, apart from suicide which is briefly evoked by Stowe, “I won’t be taken, Eliza; I’ll die first! I’ll be free, or I’ll die!” (24) George has made his decision and he does not need Eliza’s approval. Escape thus represents the will to live. The situation is quite different in Jacobs’s text. At first, Linda does not really think about escaping herself. She assumes she is doomed to stay on the plantation because her master is obsessed with her, but she thinks her brother should run away and that she might join him later. In both texts, slave women are victimized, even as far as salvation and running away are concerned. They are “owned” both by the system of slavery and also body and soul by their masters. Linda is physically imprisoned by Flint and Eliza is a prisoner of her faith. She is a prisoner of God and of Stowe’s Christian convictions. The fact that she often appears as a mere object or as a dehumanized fictitious character certainly comes from this three-dimensional “mastering” of her character (master + God + author). Unlike Eliza, Linda has the willpower of a man, which may explain the fact that she fascinates Dr. Flint.

  • 26  H. Stowe, op.cit., 19.

21Both texts tackle the question of personal rebellion from different angles. For Brent, it seems to be an inner attitude: you can rebel by refusing the moral and psychological pressure of your master; it is thus a daily fight and escape would be the last step towards freedom. For Stowe, rebellion is impossible on an individual level: George cannot make injustice stop, so he has to leave it behind so as not to lose his honor and integrity: “He had been able to repress every disrespectful word; but the flashing eye, the gloomy and troubled brow, were part of a natural language that could not be repressed,—indubitable signs, which showed too plainly that the man could not become a thing”26. Tom dies and Eliza runs away. Escape remains the only solution. The theme of escape is more clearly debated in the chapters “Preparations for Escape” by Jacobs and “The Mother’s Struggle” by Stowe.

22As we have already seen, and all the more when it was produced by slaves themselves, literature about slavery was a medium for freedom of expression, i.e. the place for the truth to be revealed. Thanks to a “mise en abyme”—or embedded situations and mirror reflections—the description of escape scenes becomes highly symbolical, even when they are an escape from reality itself as in the case of Harriet Jacobs. The quest for freedom is just as strong and powerful given that the writer is its main agent in slave narratives, or its main spokesman in narratives about slaves. American antebellum literature, as it bridges all cultural gaps, clearly moves from the confinement of words and genres, to a place of freedom: written testimony.

23Escape, as the only way out for slaves in a Southern society still unaware of the destructive drawbacks of slavery, is once again experienced by women and children in two chapters that are very emotional and graphic. Within a few pages, the “weakest beings”—according to the classical romantic standards in nineteenth European literature (with its gloomy Byronic heroes and pale and sickly Flaubertian heroines)—do the most extraordinary things. At this stage, both books become places of freedom, even though the means to reach this freedom is not described in the same way. The decision to escape is made by the mothers, Eliza and Linda and what motivates their escape is the safety of their children and the potential reconstruction of a family nucleus somewhere else, far from the plantation.

24The chapters “Preparations for Escape” (Jacobs) and “The Mother’s Struggle” (Stowe), are both progressive in time and plot, as if their authors were eventually finding a technical compromise in order to reach efficiency and make their diegeses coincide. Stowe’s text is divided into three distinct parts: Eliza and her son running away, the out-of-focus observation of her pursuers, and Eliza’s final leap to the other side of the Ohio River. Jacobs’s narrative presents her escape as a longer process: seven years hidden like an animal in a damp and shabby attic, observing the daily life of her children through a peep-hole and waiting for an opportunity. Kolchin insists on the treatment of this hiding period of voyeurism in his book American Slavery:

  • 27  P. Kolchin, op.cit., 161.

Fugitives rightly feared being betrayed by slaves seeking to curry favor with authorities, but some runaways received food, shelter and guidance from sympathetic blacks, both slave and free: Harriet Jacobs hid for seven years in the attic of her grandmother, a respected free black woman who kept her secret and eventually helped her escape to the North27.

  • 28  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 156.
  • 29  H. Stowe, op.cit., 55.
  • 30  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 159.
  • 31  M. Child, op.cit., 12.

25When the opportunity to escape finally comes, Linda’s first decision is to give her place on the boat to her long-lost friend Fanny, who is hidden in a nearby basement: “I told him about poor Fanny and the kind-hearted, noble fellow, who never turned his back upon any body in distress, white or black, expressed his readiness to help her”28. Then, in a third stage, we can witness her leaving after a talk with her son. This parallel construction of the Jacobs/Stowe narratives is meant to show that escaping is the result of mature reflection for women, which could take more or less time—and once again fiction cannot be as realistic as autobiography—but in all cases, would always entail a danger of death and separation for the fugitive. What is at stake is the salvation of the children. The mother chooses to escape to protect the children from being sold—“If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader tomorrow morning [...] how fast could you walk?”29—or to seek the reunification of the family in the Free States—“I told him I was now going to the Free States and if he was a good, honest boy and a loving child to his dear old grand-mother, the Lord would bless him and bring him to me and we and Ellen would live together”30. In both passages, this urge to escape is palpable in the bravery and exhilaration of both women despite their physical pain: sore limbs and a weak body for Linda, exhaustion and wounds on her feet for Eliza. Stowe tries her best to reproduce the abnegation and courage of the fleeing mother in her book; this is something she can understand, it is beyond philosophy or politics. Escape deals with the willpower of mothers; Harriet Beecher-Stowe has lost a child and raised six others, she has read many slave narratives, and at this stage of her novel, she is in harmony with Brent’s own strength in character and temperament. They have reached “sisterhood”, a notion that is clearly highlighted by Maria Child, Jacobs’s white editor, talking about her wish to publish Harriet’s autobiography: “I do this for my sisters in bondage who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them”31.

  • 32  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 158.

26The appetite for freedom that both mothers have for themselves and above all for their sons, is made even stronger by the dramatic tensions created in both texts with the presence of white pursuers and black traitors. Such a situation emphasizes the perversion of the system of slavery which brought some slaves to become drivers—like the heartless character of Sam in Stowe’s book—or mere traitors working for the masters, like Jenny in Jacobs’s autobiography. The portrayal of some slaves who became loyal to their masters in order to improve their personal situation is simultaneously pathetic and terribly cynical: “She was one of those base characters that would have jumped to betray a suffering fellow being for the sake of thirty pieces of silver”32. All they obtain is the scorn of their fellow-slaves and the contempt of their masters, like Haley towards Sam, in Stowe’s chapter “The Mother’s Struggle”.

  • 33 Ibid, 156.

27Danger is omnipresent in both escape scenes; the danger of being caught, but also the danger of having friends caught, tortured and killed. The responsibility of the fugitive is clearly underlined in Jacobs’s text: “I was exceedingly anxious about Fanny and Peter too who was running a risk at my instigation”33. She is worried about her black friends and those who are involved in the escape network. Freedom clearly has a price which is extremely high and could be fatal; the reader thus becomes involved in the process of escaping: his reading is a precious commitment for the sake of freedom as it gives testimony its real value.

  • 34  H. Stowe, op.cit., 66.

28Some people are fundamentally good and act to promote the freedom of others; they do not have to be Christians, they can even be uneducated and with no religious background but they are worthy, generous and brave, trying to help. Of course some are relatives, like Linda Brent’s grandmother, others are white people revolted by slavery, even if they are part of the system—like Mrs. Shelby who tries to prevent Haley from running after Eliza and her son. Others are simple people, observing and reacting, like the people rescuing Eliza after her leap on the ice: “Come now, go along like a likely, sensible gal, as you are. You’ve arnt your liberty, and you shall have it, for all me”34.

  • 35  J. Yellin, op.cit., 25.

29Thus, freedom is attainable thanks to personal bravery and self-abnegation, but also made possible thanks to the actions of people on the outside. Antebellum literature is created for readers to understand and believe what is revealed to them. In this new literary genre that emerged in the 1830s in America, mingling two cultures—the white abolitionist and the black fugitive—the future of humanity is at stake. The readers had to get involved in what they were reading in order to feel the urge for change and freedom expressed by the writers of these “historical” texts. Meeting Harriet Beecher-Stowe at the White House, Lincoln said to her: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”35. Both Stowe and Jacobs are “conscience-awakeners” who show the limits of the acceptable. In this way, they can be juxtaposed, their major differences in culture and background being if not erased, at least blurred, by the result of their creation: an awakening of the reader’s conscience.

30This conclusion is still valid today. Jacobs and Stowe’s testimonies about one major “mistake” in the history of mankind must not be considered as old-fashioned. They testify to the unbelievable strength of women and the moral weakness of societies ruled by the quest for progress and profit. In this way, they remain extremely modern.

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Related and cited works

Beecher-Stowe Harriet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Berlant Lauren, “The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Harriet Jacobs, Frances Harper and Anita Hill” in American Literature, issue n° 65, September 1993.

Bradford Sarah, Harriet, The Moses of Her People. New York: Geo. R. Lockwood & Son, 1886.

Brent Linda, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1973.

Brent Linda, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. ed. Yellin Jean. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Bontemps Arna, “The Slave Narrative: An American Genre” in Great Slave Narratives. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Child Maria, Preface to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1973.

Douglass Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1849 (Signet Printing, 1968 and Signet Classic, 1997).

Douglass Frederick, My Bondage and my Freedom. New York: Auburn, Miller, Orton & co., 1857.

DuBois W. E. B., The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870. Harvard P.H.D Thesis, 1896. (Harvard Historical Studies, vol. I).

DuBois W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Signet Classic, 1995 (1903).

Fox-Genovese Elisabeth, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Gray White Deborah, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Southern Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999 (revised edition).

Henson Josiah, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Narrated by Himself. Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849.

Kolchin Peter, American Slavery. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Rawick George P., The American Slave: a Composite Autobiography. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1972.

Robbins Sarah, “Gendering the History of the Antislavery Narrative: Juxtaposing ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Benito Cereno’, ‘Beloved’ and ‘Middle Passage’” in American Quarterly, 49.3, 1997, 531-573.

Sanchez-Eppler Karen, “Righting Slavery and Writing Sex: the Erotics of Narration in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents”, in Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism and the Politics of the Body, Berkeley, Cal.: California University Press, 1993.

Teller Walter, Introduction to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co, 1973.

Wilson Edmund, Patriotic Gore. New York: OUP, 1966.

Yellin Jean Fagan, Introduction and Notes to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: OUP, 1998.

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1  We will use both names in this paper. Jacobs will be used to talk about the author of the narrative; Brent will be used to talk about the main character of the narrative and each time the author-narrator or author-character link is clearly established.

2  In 1859, Amy Post wrote: “The author of this book is my highly-esteemed friend. If its readers knew her as I know her, they could not fail to be deeply interested in her story”. (Rochester, 1859, in Appendix, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Maria Child, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973).

3  The mass circulation of slave narratives began in the early 1830s and approximately 50 major narratives were published before the Civil War. They were popular and profitable to publish. (see Blyden Jackson's History of African-AmericanLiterature, vol.1, chapt.6).

4  Walter Teller, Introduction to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973, 10.

5  Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Oxford: OUP, 1998, 3.

6  Harriet Jacobs/Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973, 14.

7  H. Stowe, op.cit., 3.

8 Idem.

9  J. Yellin, Introduction and Notes to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, New York: OUP, 1998, 19.

10  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 13.

11 Idem.

12  H. Stowe, op.cit., 344.

13  For comments on Cathy Davidson’s or Ann Douglass’s readership preferences, see Sarah Robbins, “Gendering the History of the Antislavery Narrative: Juxtaposing ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Benito Cereno’, ‘Beloved’ and ‘Middle Passage’”, in American Quarterly, 49.3, 1997, 549. Sarah Robbins develops the caricatural divisions between high (male) and low (female) literary creations in America in the 1850s.

14  H. Stowe, op.cit., 18.

15  Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, New York: Penguin, 1993, 125.

16  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 63.

17  H. Stowe, op.cit., 19.

18  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 62.

19  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 36.

20  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 41.

21  H. Stowe, op.cit., 23.

22  M. Child, op.cit., 11.

23  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 38.

24  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 39.

25  H. Stowe, op.cit., 21.

26  H. Stowe, op.cit., 19.

27  P. Kolchin, op.cit., 161.

28  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 156.

29  H. Stowe, op.cit., 55.

30  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 159.

31  M. Child, op.cit., 12.

32  H. Jacobs, op.cit., 158.

33 Ibid, 156.

34  H. Stowe, op.cit., 66.

35  J. Yellin, op.cit., 25.

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Anne Garrait-Bourrier, « Biography versus Fiction or the Value of Testimony in Jacobs’s and Stowe’s Narratives about Slavery »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 31-47.

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Anne Garrait-Bourrier, « Biography versus Fiction or the Value of Testimony in Jacobs’s and Stowe’s Narratives about Slavery »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 30 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne Garrait-Bourrier

Dr. (Clermont-Ferrand, France)
Anne Garrait-Bourrier est maître de conférences à l’Université Blaise Pascal de Clermont II où elle enseigne la littérature américaine du XIXe siècle. Spécialiste d’études culturelles américaines et de littérature amérindienne, elle a publié L’Esclavage aux États-Unis, du déracinement à l’identité, collection Les Essentiels Ellipses, 2001 ; Les Indiens aux États-Unis: renaissance d’une culture, en collaboration avec Monique Vénuat, Les Essentiels, Ellipses, 2002 ; Écriture(s) de la guerre aux États-Unis, des années 1850 aux années 1970, ouvrage collectif co-dirigé par Patricia Godi-Tkatchouk, Collection Textes du CRLMC, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2003.

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