Many know the story of how Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was nearly lost to history as twentieth-century scholars misattributed its authorship to Jacobs’s white editor Lydia Maria Child. But fewer know the complex history of both how Jacobs got Incidents circulating in her own time and why she stopped midway through her own book tour to pour her energies into helping Black refugees from the Confederacy. What does this story tell us about the connections between writing, self-expression, canonization, and social justice? The parts of Jacobs’s life story not printed in the pages of Incidents challenge us to extend our study of African American print culture and seek to recover acts of self-expression and social justice beyond the book.
These questions about writing, advocacy, and resources presented themselves to me recently while I was immersed in a new research project, a recovery of Harriet Jacobs’s self-publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Shortly after the initial advertisement for Incidents appeared in the November 3, 1860 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, both Jacobs and Child learned that publication of Incidents would be delayed. The publishers of the volume, Thayer & Eldridge, had run into financial problems. The new publication date—December 1860—came and went, and still no book. The publishers then notified their clients that they were shuttering their doors and would not carry out their contracts even for books “soon in the market.” Thayer & Eldridge would not publish, distribute, or sell a single copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
An entirely different fate may have awaited Jacobs’s book if Thayer & Eldridge had scheduled the publication of Incidents only a few months sooner. In April, the publishers had finished a run of another well-known nineteenth century book—the third edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They spent more printing and promoting this ornate and ostentatious book than they had ever spent before, and found themselves without the means to fulfill Jacobs’s or any other outstanding contract.
Without a publisher, Jacobs arranged to stereotype, print, and bind Incidents entirely on her own (with very little and possibly no help from her editor). She paid half of the bill upfront, but was left in significant debt to her printer, a debt she agreed to repay with the proceeds from her book sales.
Unlike Whitman, who had the benefit of a publisher’s network, Jacobs needed to sell all of her books herself. Her editor and friend, Lydia Maria Child, helped sell copies by writing to abolitionist acquaintances throughout Massachusetts. Jacobs, however, took a more direct approach. She packed up a trunk of books and travelled to Boston, NYC, Philly, and DC to find audiences for her work. Not only did she work hard to bring her book to print, but she also travelled for months, placing her books directly in the hands of her readers. Without this dedication and savvy as a self-publisher, her remarkable story about enslavement, sexual abuse, motherhood, family, and freedom would be lost to us.
The general takeaway of this research—that a publisher would risk it all on a new edition of an art book by a white guy from Brooklyn instead of an autobiography by a black woman—bears retelling even if it’s not an altogether surprising story. If the story ended there, this would have been an easy article to write. I would have felt honored and humbled to share the story of a black woman’s literary labor lost, and to point to Whitman’s near eclipse of a singular autobiography. But Jacobs’s story does not end with the successful self-publication of Incidents. Her story, I was surprised to learn, illuminates the connections between the nineteenth-century’s “border crisis” and our own. After being misled and misused by her publisher, Jacobs took creative action to ensure her story would reach audiences and advance the abolitionist cause. She would also apply this same creativity and direct action to a large-scale humanitarian crisis at a new nineteenth-century border.
Jacobs’s book tour came to an abrupt end in the first months of 1862. She didn’t stop out of exhaustion or frustration; she stopped selling her books because she saw refugees in cages at the border between the United States and the Confederacy. These refugees were formerly enslaved people who travelled North in the midst of the war to escape enslavement and violence. This nineteenth-century border crisis, like our own, was the result of racist federal policy, corporate greed, and fear. Northern officials—who, while on the right side of history, were still pretty fucking racist—did not want people of color living freely in the North. Instead, camps were set up to contain the refugees (who were often referred to as “the contrabands,” a word that speaks to their dehumanization and continued status as property despite their residence on free soil).
Jacobs was shocked to find people detained in unspeakable conditions. In a newspaper article for The Liberator, she describes “thousands of men and women and children crowded together, the smallpox raging among them; sick from other diseases; dying, on the average, from five to seven a day, without bedding, without a change of clothing, without nourishment, without the commonest necessaries for the comfort of the sick and dying.” The refugees faced abuse from guards and officials, receiving “insults, and sometimes beatings” to an extent that “they have learned to distrust those who wear the uniform of the U.S.”. Reading through Jacobs’s public and private writing during this period is sobering for its familiarity. She describes families torn apart, children forced to survive detainment on their own, and a country that seems largely indifferent. Compounding the material suffering of such detainment both then and now is an awakening to the hypocrisy of freedom in the United States—that it has always been a promise meted out unevenly.
Jacobs, outraged, put down her books and took direct action. She established herself as a distribution agent for northern benevolent societies and acted as a matron for the refugee camp in Alexandria, Virginia. In these roles, she made sure that clothing, food, and supplies were distributed justly and without graft. She and her fellow aid workers protected the most vulnerable from abuse by camp guards. When she learned of a new policy to house orphans in “the smallpox house,” a certain death sentence for some, she stood up to a U.S. Military General and demanded the children be left in her care without the oversight of a guard—and it worked. She spent the next several years devoting all of her time, money, and energy to the refugees—opening a school, overseeing the distribution of food and goods, and showing kindness and humanity in the face of suffering and uncertainty. She worked with profound purpose, helping people with immediacy, in a thousand different ways. Though she struggled with the work physically and emotionally, Jacobs writes “My health is better than it has been for years” in a letter to her friend Amy Post. “The good God has spared me for this work & the last six months has been the happiest of all my life.”
I poured over these entries in The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers—not to learn about the nineteenth century, but to learn how to resist and be kind and strong when the world is falling apart. In my readings, I found myself especially drawn to one particular interaction with the director of the Alexandria camp, Mr. Gladwin. Jacobs and some of her fellow matrons tried to keep as many refugees out of the camps as possible; instead, finding them homes with a network of friends in and around the city. This action, it probably goes without saying, was against the rules. In a letter to a friend, Jacobs writes:
For the last 10 days I have scarce had a moment to myself. Every night we have had a fresh arrival of Refugees. I am up & at the Barracks by 6 o’clock, hurrying as many as I can out among their friends before Mr. Gladwin reports them for Washington. Saturday I had 3 hrs. Ahead of him, he found out that I had interfered, he came in great distress & said that I wd. be the cause of his being arrested. I requested that we both might be arrested & then I would explain why I had interfered with these people, he thought better of it & let the matter rest.
Jacobs worked outside of the system to shield people from suffering at great risk to herself. She risked arrest to defend others. I have no doubt that her actions took courage and determination, and that it would have been easier to comply or back down. Jacobs, vested with the certainty that she was right, risked arrest and personal harm. Jacobs’s fellow matron, Julia Wilbur, wrote letters that tell us much of what we know about Jacobs in this period. Wilbur writes “Mrs. J is not in the least afraid of him, & I am so glad she is here.”
Though Jacobs worked long, heartbreaking hours during these years, she continued to write. She was a correspondent for abolitionist newspapers and composed reports for freedmen’s aid societies. These short, purposeful texts recount moments of suffering and progress in the camps, and they encourage readers to take action and take heart. These literary labors are in many ways a continuation of Jacobs lifelong approach to social justice—one in which writing and advocacy are always intertwined, and best applied for the aid of others.
—Christy Pottroff’s grandma read her entire dissertation.
Featured image courtesy of the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.