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1. Why do you think Harriet Jacobs published under a pseudonym? What kinds of anxieties did she feel about making her story public? How did her narrative engage with nineteenth-century ideas about womanhood?

Whatever her moral failings, Jacobs claims in recounting her sexual affairs as a slave woman, the traditional ideals of the nineteenth-century "cult of true womanhood" could not adequately address them. Writing an unprecedented mixture of confession, self-justification, and societal expose, Harriet Jacobs turned her autobiography into a unique analysis of the myths and the realities that defined the situation of the African American woman and her relationship to nineteenth-century standards of womanhood. As a result, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl occupies a crucial place in the history of American women's literature in general and African American women's literature in particular. In Rochester Jacobs met and began to confide in Amy Post, an abolitionist and pioneering feminist who gently urged the fugitive slave mother to consider making her story public. After the tumultuous response to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jacobs thought of enlisting the aid of the novel's author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in getting her own story published. But Stowe had little interest in any sort of creative partnership with Jacobs.

2. How do slave narratives recast the American ideal of the “self-made man” to fit African Americans? How does Frederick Douglass, for example, build on and transform the legacy of Benjamin Franklin?

Autobiographies by former slaves, polemical speeches and editorials, and sentimental novels confronted their audiences with powerful narratives of the cruelty and destructiveness of slavery. These anti-slavery texts had overt designs upon their readers, using emotional rhetoric and didacticism to call the American populace to action in the interests of social reform. Anti-slavery literature also had the important effect of exposing the arbitrary nature of racial distinctions, thus challenging prejudices that had long been used to justify discrimination and inequality. Frederick Douglass's autobiography chronicles his early experiences of oppression, his rebellion, and his eventual heroic achievement of a fully liberated sense of self and identity. Emphasizing the importance of literacy and active resistance, he recasts the American myth of the "self-made man" to include African Americans.

3. What is the relationship between Jacobs’s account of her slavery and escape and Douglass’s account of his? How does she borrow and modify some of the conventions Douglass pioneered in his autobiography? Do you think they wrote for the same kind of audience? How are her concerns different from his?

A comparison of the narratives of Douglass and Jacobs demonstrates the full range of demands and situations that slaves could experience. Some of the similarities in the two accounts are a result of the prescribed formats that governed the publication of their narratives. The fugitive or freed or “ex” slave narrators were expected to give accurate details of their experiences within bondage, emphasizing their sufferings under cruel masters and the strength of their will to free themselves. One of the most important elements that developed within the narratives was a “literacy” scene in which the narrator explained how he or she came to be able to do something that proslavery writers often declared was impossible: to read and write. Authenticity was paramount, but readers also looked for excitement, usually provided through dramatic details of how the slave managed to escape from his/her owners. Slave narrators also needed to present their credentials as good Christians while testifying to the hypocrisy of their supposedly pious owners. Both Douglass and Jacobs included some version of all these required elements yet also injected personalized nuances that transformed the formulas for their own purposes. Some of the differences in the readership and reception of Jacobs’s narrative and Douglass’s first, autobiography reflect simply the differing literary and political circumstances that prevailed at the time of their construction and publication.

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