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American Literature 73.2 (2001) 277-309

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The “Mysteries and Miseries” of North Carolina:
New York City, Urban Gothic Fiction, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Jennifer Rae Greeson

“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”—“A Woman of North Carolina,” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861

The extraordinary epigraph on the title page of the first edition of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) makes a startling assertion about the evils of Southern slavery. In these lines, the identifying feature of that exploitative labor system—“perpetual bondage only”—is dismissed as insufficient cause for its abolition.1 Instead, the anonymous quotation implies, the sole facet of Southern slavery that should spur Northern readers to antislavery action is the “depth of degradation”—that antebellum buzzword for illicit female sexuality—that slavery inflicts on women. The text to follow, the epigraph promises, will deliver to Northern readers the sensational exposé of sexual transgression under Southern slavery requisite for their proper understanding of, and political action against, the peculiar institution of the South.

The epigraph, and indeed Jacobs’s book itself, are representative of a major shift in Northern conceptions of U.S. slavery in the antebellum period. Though substantially absent from U.S. discourse on slavery before the 1830s, the sexual violation of enslaved women became a centerpiece of Northern representations of the South by the 1850s.2 Why did “degradation” become the key fact of Southern slavery for [End Page 277] audiences at this historical moment? Using Incidents as a case study, this essay asks under what conditions illicit sex became an acceptable, indeed compelling, way for f audiences to imagine Southern slavery in the late antebellum years. This representational shift was not a response to any changes in the slave system itself, for sexual abuse and extramarital sexual liaisons were intrinsic to North American slavery from its introduction on the continent. Instead, I propose that we look to changes in Northern society to explain why popular representations of slavery in the Northern press increasingly focused not on enslavement itself but on “The Deeper Wrong” (as Jacobs’s British publisher perceptively retitled her book).3 For if the social order of Southern slavery remained relatively static in the antebellum decades, life in the Northern states at that time was evolving at a dramatic pace under the related forces of industrialization and urbanization.

Excavating the representational logic of antebellum Northern portrayals of Southern slavery might begin with a simple observation: in Northern popular print culture of the 1840s and 1850s, two distinct social spaces in the United States were commonly imagined to contain “harems”—which is to say that two spaces were understood to enable, if not to promote, the sexual use of women outside the institution of marriage. One of these harem-prone spaces was the Southern plantation; the other, of course, was the burgeoning industrial metropolis. At the same moment, then, that illicit sex on the plantation became ever more daringly a fixture of abolitionist narratives, the “mysteries and miseries” of illicit sex in the city were being probed ever more obsessively in urban gothic tales.4 I suggest that these two apparently distinct antebellum genres—urban gothic fiction and abolitionist narratives—were in fact intimately connected. Sharing audiences, centers of publication, reformist missions, and even authors, these genres influenced the development of a set of textual conventions that transformed the antebellum popular understanding of women’s sexual transgression. Together, these genres were sites for the creation of formulas through which the story of “the fallen woman” came for the first time to signify not her sexual deviance—her personal sin caused by loose morals or misguided choices—but her sexual exploitation—her victimization by a corrupt...