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HARRIET JACOBS by Jean Fagan Yellin Kirkus Star

HARRIET JACOBS

A Life

By Jean Fagan Yellin

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2004
ISBN: 0-465-09288-8
Publisher: Basic Civitas

Graceful, honorable portrait, extensively documented and annotated, of the woman who wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Yellin, who previously edited a modern edition of Jacobs’s 1861 classic, makes no bones about being an Old Lefty and, out of that tradition, being drawn to the powerful slave narrative. Many scholars have cast doubt on the authenticity of the book’s story and questioned whether Jacobs actually wrote it; Yellin dug deep, pulling together her subject’s extant letters (of which there are a gratifyingly substantial number) and deciphering the names of the real characters behind the pseudonyms. She makes it clear where the evidence is scant, but finds a syntactical identity between the letters and the narrative. Yellin fixes Jacobs’s early experiences in the social history of Edenton, North Carolina, home to freeborn, emancipated, and slave populations, as well as the white families for whom she worked. The author is rightly wowed by a woman who learned to read despite anti-literacy laws and, unlike Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, actually wrote her own autobiography—with the help of Lydia Maria Child, granted, but in her own words. During the Civil War, Jacobs did relief work for refugees and the poor and wrote about it for Northern newspapers. Later, she helped establish schools, gardens, orphanages, and old-folk homes, operating at ground level as an activist in the true sense, as strong a resister of racism as the ex-slave desperadoes of the antebellum South. Yellin displays a pleasing and unusual ability to be both euphonious and punchy as she weds Jacobs’s story to the politics of the times: Nat Turner and David Walker’s Appeal, Frederick Douglass’s North Star, and Samuel Cornish’s Rights of All. In her final years, Jacobs ran boardinghouses, fed the poor, even worked cleaning houses, always engaged with life on a fundamental level.

Yellin’s fine reconstruction of an impressive personality should firmly embed Jacobs in American cultural history. (16-page b&w photo insert, not seen)