- Harriet Jacobs's "Excrescences":Aesthetics and Politics in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Once most famous for finding a kind of freedom in a seven-years voluntary exile within a crawlspace in her grandmother's attic, Harriet Jacobs—author of the 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—can now be seen as a much less constricted figure. Critics including Saidiya Hartman and Lauren Berlant have focused upon issues such as the complexity of Jacobs's understanding of citizenship and freedom, stressing the acuity of Jacobs's analysis of her culture rather than her time in hiding.1 The tenor of such treatments is perhaps crystallized in Mark Rifkin's contention that "Jacobs's narrative can and should be understood as political theory"—as opposed, implicitly, to a slave narrative or sentimental fiction.2 Another aspect of recent discussion of Jacobs is a stress in biographical and archival work upon Jacobs's political activism beyond the writing of Incidents.3 Her life includes tenure as the secretary of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Reading Room, founding and running a school for freedmen and refugees in Alexandria, Va., and other activities as part of a wide circle of reform-minded Americans. For instance, in 1864 Jacobs "organized Alexandria's first celebration of emancipation in the British West Indies and delivered the keynote address," an event recorded in the Anglo-African.4 As both theoretician of freedom, race, and American politics, and as activist citizen, Jacobs has emerged from the shadow of the attic and moments of reserve and elision in her writing where critics formerly looked for her.
Such reassessments of Jacobs have shifted attention from the literary quality, so to speak, of Incidents; it is read mostly for its content, be that autobiographical or theoretical, and much less for its rhetoric or its generic innovations. There's justification for a drift away from interest in Incidents as a literary text (beyond the general drift of literary criticism from any commitment to so notoriously nebulous a notion as "the literary"), since before Jean Fagan Yellin proved that Jacobs was the author of Incidents, twentieth-century critics assumed that it was a novel written by its white editor, Lydia Maria Child. Calling it a novel, therefore, was connected to calling it not Jacobs's work, in a replay of an earlier vein of hostile readings of slave narratives which dismissed them as fictional shams.5 Once Jacobs's authorship had been established, a great deal of attention was paid to how Jacobs had "seized authority" over the genres of both slave narrative and the sentimental novel, and her work enabled a revision in our understanding of the genre of the slave narrative.6 But now that more recent scholarship has shown that the focus on the sentimental novel was largely Child's doing, the identification of the way that this text responds to and revises the genres of sentimental literature and the slave narrative by combining the two must seem a more dubious endeavor, one that entails praising the text as it was transformed, if not disfigured, by Child.7 Solidifying the case for an anti-literary Jacobs, she herself suggests that she understood her book primarily as a tool in the cause of abolition, since her correspondence expresses the hope that "by identifying myself with—[the book] I might do something for the Antislavry Cause."8
Despite such concerns, reading the Incidents as a largely transparent record of either Jacobs's life or her critical analysis is insufficient. This is only in part because it unfortunately recycles some of the terms in which her text was edited and received in the first place. For Incidents was praised for lacking any rhetoric: the Anti-Slavery Bugle wrote "The style is simple and attractive—you feel less as though you were reading a book, than talking with the woman herself," and the London Daily News wrote that "the impression it produces upon the mind owes nothing to exaggerated language," calling Jacobs's "words … calm and moderate" rather than "elegant."9 Child observed that her editorial interposition had been only to "prune … excrescences a little...