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Reviewed by:
  • The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers
  • Joycelyn Moody
Jean Fagan Yellin , ed. The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers. 2 vols. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008. 1056 pp. $125.00.

A blues coda in Gayl Jones's 1970 novel Corregidora grieves that when the Brazilian slaveocracy fell in 1888, "they burned all the papers." As if to honor Jones's admonition to "leave evidence" and unearth the destroyed documents, Jean Fagan Yellin has achieved a monumental task. Or rather, several. To authenticate Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) as the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861), Yellin consulted with numerous archivists and librarians for her 1987 paradigm-shifting edition of Incidents and amassed a personal collection of 100 pertinent items. To complete Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2003) in 1995, Yellin solicited from seventy-eight institutions any materials related to Jacobs; a year later, she had collected 500 items. While finishing the biography project, more than twenty years since she had first begun exploring Jacobs's background, Yellin realized she had gathered enough materials about Jacobs, Jacobs's immediate and extended families and those of her Southern enslavers, and diverse others, to form for separate publication a set of illuminative papers about Jacobs's life and times. Still, she had no idea that she could and would fill a thousand pages over two volumes with these documents—any more than she had ever expected to devote three decades to Jacobs studies.

Yellin's new books will transform antebellum studies and stimulate the production of scholarship yet to be envisioned. Yellin writes that she retrospectively conceives of her "triad of materials"—namely, Incidents (particularly the 2000 edition expanded with John S. Jacobs's True Tale of Slavery, which was first published in London in February 1861, one month after Incidents was published in the U. S.); Harriet Jacobs:A Life; and finally The Jacobs Family Papers and its searchable CD-ROM—as providing researchers with "the incentive for future work and a set of tools to do that work" (Papers xxiv).

Many know Harriet Jacobs as the author of the only extant self-produced antebellum slave narrative written by a formerly enslaved woman. Now Yellin's indefatigable research unveils Jacobs as also a reporter, correspondent, social reformer, activist, orator, educator and founder of the Jacobs Free School immediately after [End Page 751] abolition. Moreover, The Jacobs Family Papers figures Jacobs as a fugitive and sojourner. She fostered a sense of movement in her two children, first by arranging their geographical and psychological transitions among family in North Carolina, then "up" (North) of slavery. The Papers further attest to Jacobs's own free movement into Alexandria (Virginia), Boston, New York City, Rochester, Savannah, Washington, D.C., and parts of England, until her death in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1897.

That The Jacobs Family Papers contains only 300 of the 900 items that Yellin has collected since the mid-1970s takes one's breath away. These 300 documents (and innumerable references to other collected materials cited in the volumes' annotations) include portraits and photographs; maps and floor plans; diary entries of persons renowned and obscure (for example, Thomas Butler Gunn's record of the life of Harriet's daughter Louisa as the "companion" of Fanny Fern's daughter); personal letters and professional correspondence from every stratum of antebellum and postemancipation America, some exchanged overseas; legal documents of every sort; slave advertisements; transcripts of speeches for all occasions and other items taken from U. S. newspapers; and diverse book jackets and title pages. Volume One provides thirty-one "Brief Biographies" (lxv-lxxxi) of the most significant figures in The Jacobs Family Papers. Additional supplements include forty-two unnumbered illustrations across the two volumes.

The documents in volume one (parts 1-6) extend past the year 1842, when Harriet Jacobs escaped North Carolina on a boat for Philadelphia. The opening pages of part one, which covers materials dated September 1810 through November 1843, parallel Yellin's organizing principles throughout the Papers. Prefacing virtually every item is a brief editorial note that calls readers' attention to a document's most significant features as well as a citation and accreditation. After...


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