Essays: Jordan Shapiro (UR 2014)







Harriet Brent Jacobs depicts life as a female slave in her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Now available on-line, 160 years later, we can access Jacobs’s private thoughts in the letters sent to Isaac and Amy Post in Rochester, New York about her life as a free woman. Jacobs met the Posts through her brother, John Jacobs. In 1849, he opened an anti-slavery reading room in Rochester to interact with the many abolitionists that lived in and passed through the city. Harriet stayed with the Posts as a fugitive slave for almost a year, March 1849- November 1849, and the letters show that she was able to maintain a close relationship with them after she left their home. Together the letters and the book, written after Jacobs’s left Rochester, give the reader a detailed description of Jacobs’s life. The letters help the reader understand her writing process from fruition of the novel until its publication. The book details Jacobs’s early life as a slave and eventually a free woman.

The letters illuminate the emotional and physical process that Jacobs experienced when writing her slave narrative. When reading the published book, which Amy Post encouraged Jacobs to complete, the reader is privy to the difficulties Jacobs faced when compelled to confront her memories of slavery. Post thought Jacobs’s stories would win supporters to the anti-slavery cause. Jacobs was not immediately convinced to write her story, because she felt she did not have the strength to record her hardships. In response to one of Post’s letters, Jacobs writes, “your proposal to me has been thought over and over again but not with out some most painful rememberances [sic]…” (Letter #84) She continues to describe habits of avoiding “anti-slavery people” who would be interested in her story because “I felt that I could not be honest and tell the whole truth... because the stories were too painful to reveal" (Letter #84). Overcoming uncertainties was her biggest barrier in deciding whether or not to write the book.

Post continued to encourage Jacobs throughout the writing of the manuscript. Author and abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child also edited Jacobs’s work. Although Jacobs wanted Post to write the preface to her book, her publisher, Thayer and Eldridge, wanted Child to provide authenticity to the book. (Letter #1330) Child advised Jacobs to add details about the injustices she witnessed. Child also compelled Jacobs to change the last chapter from a story about radical abolitionist John Brown to details surrounding the death of her grandmother and a tale of ultimate freedom. Brown, who had led the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1857, caused many whites in the North to re-consider their abolitionist ties and question the methods and goals of the movement. Child felt such a chapter regressed back to the horrors of slavery instead of mirroring the traditional slave narrative, which ended with the former slave attaining freedom.

Despite Jacobs’s hesitations, her slave narrative presents true insight into the institution of slavery. Reading the book gives the reader a greater understanding of Jacobs’s motivations for her story and the letters help the reader better understand her writing process and her final product. The letters and book reference similar people, institutions, and events but give the reader a first-hand account as well as a hindsight analysis from Jacobs. When read together, the reader can more fully understand Jacobs’ life story and her path to freedom.

Faculty and students are invited to contact the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, if they're interested in becoming involved with the Post Family Digitization Project.