The 19th Century was a difficult time for writers, with the number of writers increasing faster than the market for it (especially towards the end of the century). Several writers of the period (notably Henry James and Walt Whitman) berated the lack of a literary canon, feeling that there wasn’t a typically American style of writing, that there was too great an influence from English writers, and promptly set about trying to create this distinctive American literature.
They failed to notice, however, that there was already an existing canon of literature, based on true events; a style that stood out from the rest because it was written from the heart and helped to effect change across the country. The slave narrative was at first an abolitionist tool, a method of trying to show people the cruel nature of slavery, however the genre evolved until it was so much more – spanning the gap between autobiography and creative literature.
Indeed, although most narratives follow a similar format, as more tales emerged, it was no longer enough to remain strictly autobiographical – a narrative’s success relied on “the narrator’s ability to create a common bond between reader and narrator”1. In this essay I intend to concentrate on two authors who created this bond between their narrators and their readers, with narratives that to this day remain the amongst the most widely read – and startlingly individual – slave narratives.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845 and became an instant bestseller, selling 30,000 copies within its first five years. Even now, it is considered a model for all following slave narratives. Individual in a very different way, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was one of the first slave narratives written by a woman, and raised awareness not only of the atrocities of slavery in general, but of the specific deeds committed against female slaves.
Within these two narratives I will examine what literacy has accomplished with regard to their own stories, especially with regard to the differences between the male and female experiences. When examining the two texts in question, one of the most important features is that both were written almost entirely by the narrators, rather than dictated to an editor.
Commonly, however, the authorship of both narratives was questioned again and again, especially in the case of Jacobs where the pro-slavery contingent refused to believe that a former slave, and a female one at that, was able to write such a graphic and heart-wrenching account of her former life. It is only in recent years that Jean Fagan Yellin, using correspondence between Jacobs and Lydia Maria Child (her editor), has been able to banish the harshest sceptics.
Douglass was more used to this type of criticism, as he wrote his narrative in response to attacks by those who “insisted he did not look, act, think or speak like a man who had just recently escaped slavery”2. When his manuscript inevitably came under attack, his status as an ex-bondsman was confirmed by a man who claimed to have known Douglass when he was still Frederick Bailey, and cited that the slave he knew did not have the intelligence to write as Douglass wrote.
The anger that the two writers in question demonstrated when their authorship and, by extension, their intelligence was being questioned, shows just the tip of how much they valued their literacy. In the first instance, literacy aided the route out of bondage: even though Douglass’ first attempt to escape failed before they could even try, it would have undoubtedly been aided by his forged letters of protection3. Jacobs’ ability to write kept her in hiding for all those years, by being able to put Dr. Flint off the scent with her letters postmarked from New York and Canada.
More than that, however, literacy helped the slaves to understand that there was more to life than what their masters told them, that they were capable of achieving something that was more than just hard, cruel work. In the South, there was “the underlying presumption that the Negro servant, or slave, was of a special inferior status,”4 and it was this assumption that the slaves had to put up with. Jacobs herself “admits that the black man is inferior,” however she didn’t just accept that explanation as gospel; she questioned “what is it that makes it so?
It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live. “5 The ability to read and write as well as a white man was stark evidence of a black man’s intelligence, and therefore evidence of his equal status in life. With equal status comes freedom, a fact that might not have been apparent to many slaves (although Douglass’s questioning nature was apparent at an early age, when he noted that “the white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege,”6) but was certainly very obvious to their masters, hence the law against teaching slaves to read.
To use the words of Douglass’ master: “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world… If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. “7 Once the slaves had escaped from the South, however, literacy took on another meaning for them: no longer the means to an end, it became a symbol of their new-found freedom; a declaration of their independence.
It was the significance of the words ‘written by himself’ on the title page: “The ability to utter his name, and more significantly to utter it in the mysterious characters on a page where it will continue to sound in silence so long as readers continue to construe the characters is what Douglass’ Narrative is about, for in that lettered utterance is an assertion of identity, and in identity is freedom – freedom from slavery, freedom from ignorance, freedom from non-being, freedom even from time.
“8 Literacy was a skill that they could use to aid those still left in bondage through published Narratives, and to further the abolitionist cause; but also, with such a document they had tangible proof of how far they had come, how far removed they were from their former life. Despite the authorship of these two particular texts being now beyond question, there is still some doubt (as there was at the time) of the actual reliability of the texts.
As there was still an amount of pro-slavery feeling at the time, even in the north, many people wished to claim that much of what was detailed in slave narratives was, in fact, fiction – the gentleman who questioned Douglass’ ability to write such a work declared “the whole lot to be a falsehood, from beginning to end. “9 One has to consider to what extent these critics are right. This is not to say that the brutality described in most narratives did not happen, as there is no doubt in my mind that it did.
However, even if the ex-slave wrote the story himself, to be published he had to have an editor. Many more narratives that were published were written based on statements, as the narrator cannot write. The abolitionists had such a large input into how the narrative was written; it is possible they put more emphasis on the brutality, as their main goal was to highlight the cruel plight faced by slaves. There is also the issue that the narrative, to be kept ‘truthful’ in the eyes of everyone, must be based completely on facts, keeping the bias of memory to a minimum.
However, once the slave narrative started to become a more creative process, there was more of an issue maintaining truth: As most narratives follow a very strict pattern, there was only so much room for manoeuvre within the blueprint, and as much as they were writing for a cause, “they were readers and self conscious producers of narratives that were intended as literary works of art – as autobiographical acts performed as much in the service of literary posterity as on behalf of a contemporary mass of enslaved Afro-Americans. “