What are the distinguishing characteristics of the genre of the slave narrative? How was the genre developed, adapted, and modified by African-American writers, such as Harriet Jacobs and Fredrick Douglass? How does the slave narrative compare to the captivity narratives written in the seventeenth century (think, for example, of Mary Rowlandson’s narrative)?
The mid-nineteenth-century slave narratives that we have discussed posit an argument that is unique among other literature of the era: they present the authors’ struggle to attain identity—both individually and communally. Whereas writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, and even Franklin, sought to distinguish themselves from the society and culture that bore the new American nation, Jacobs and Douglass write of their effort to find the self that those institutions denied them. Their narratives express and provoke the array of human emotions. They are desperate and angry, utterly despondent and at times capitulating; yet they are also spirited, hopeful, and tenacious. Writers in this genre do not merely recount the details of their lives, but do so with admonishing and reflective tones that arouse in readers the emotion with which they write.
Perhaps the most telling passage of a slave’s denial of identity comes from Frederick Douglass’s description of the “holidays” between Christmas and New Year’s Day: “I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit” (Douglass 979). Not only are they contrived reliefs from the labors of slavery that deliberately allay resistance, but they work to negate the slaves’ humanity by encouraging drunkenness and depravity. The slaveholders, while giving slaves “vicious dissipation, artfully labeled with the name of liberty,” perpetuated the “whole system of fraud and inhumanity” (Douglass 979). Douglass explains that this was a primary method by which slaves were dehumanized. Less explicitly, his narrative evinces that total deprivation of identity in chapter XI, when Douglass recalls how he had chosen his name. Indeed, he had had a name from birth, but the seeming ease with which he casts off his given name, and adopts a new one, suggests how loosely woven the identity of this man was that he should make deliberate efforts to fashion it for himself.
Like Douglass’s, Harriet Jacobs’s narrative is indicative of a resolution to build identity where one had been systemically oppressed by slavery. In her opening chapter she remarks, “according to Southern laws, a slave, being property, can hold no property” (Jacobs 820). Jacobs speaks of the devaluing practice of selling slaves and splitting families—something Douglass struggled with as well. By sundering families for profit, or discipline, or any reason for that matter, slavery robs individuals of an important means by which humans from identity: attachment.
These slave narratives are then assertions of human selfhood. Instead of writing to differentiate or characterize themselves as apart from some other society or culture, writers in this genre work from a total negation of identity, toward the formation of themselves—toward assimilation, as it were, into the family of humanity. Emerson, Thoreau, and Franklin write of the importance of being an individual—of the necessity to live by one’s own ideology, not that of the majority or of one’s predecessors. But they presume one’s capacity to develop identity when they make their arguments—a capacity that relies on freedom. The slave narratives of Douglass and Jacobs show no such privilege; they must fight first for the ability to have an identity. Where one seeks to gain distinction, the other strives to be accepted.
Captivity narratives like Rowlandson’s, or even John Smith’s, also lack this negation of person that is so integral to the slave narrative. Doubtless, the words of Mary Rowlandson are deeply moving. And, like later slave narratives, they are heavily invested with emotion and pathos. Nevertheless, Rowlandson’s story seems to be an ascent from shallower waters. For her, there was hope. She had a seemingly amiable life before being captured: she had a family, children, a home and life that was hers. Nothing belonged to Douglass or Jacobs. Rowlandson had always the thought of her surviving offspring, her husband, and her siblings. There remained for her the possibility of reuniting with these. The narratives of slaves were undergirded by the disconsolation of having no known family, no property to return to, no life to re-inhabit. Even if Douglass and Jacobs have the hope of one day gaining freedom (a tenuous hope, at best), in that freedom there is inextricably woven the tragedy of having been plundered of the earliest, most influential attachments humans need. Rowlandson’s loss is devastating, but almost redeemable. For the slave, the loss is so great, and so deep throughout their lives, that no matter how they prevail, they will forever be deeply wounded.
John Smith’s narrative of captivity, it seems, is altogether the reverse of a slave narrative. He writes with an enthusiastic zeal that appears designed to convey his superiority over his captors. He writes of their ceremonies as “an exceeding handsome show,” maintaining an air of aloofness nearing condescension (Smith 64). Rowlandson, too, appeals to the preeminence of her audience to lend to the tragedy of her narrative. “Away we must go with those barbarous creatures,” she says, who “would eat horse’s guts, ears, and all sorts” (Rowlandson 130, 138). These early accounts of captivity are of a distinctly propagandistic flavor; they speak to readers who understand and sympathize already with their writers, whose ideas and beliefs are bolstered by the narratives they imbibe. Slave narratives, while indoctrinating in their own right, attempt to move a majority to alter their beliefs entirely. They had not the benefit of such a sympathetic audience.
This, perhaps, is where the effects of such viscerally emotional prose become most defining and important to the slave narrative. Douglass writes with anger and desperation, Jacobs with profound sorrow and dejection. “The white man that expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me,” says Douglass after finally vowing to fight back with force against his oppressors (Douglass 978). His prose is vehement, and it reflects his fury and willingness to use force. Jacobs’s plight is more somber and pensive, but no less affecting, invoking readers directly to imagine her struggle: “Reader, did you ever hate? I hope not. I never did but once” (Jacobs 824). She speaks of her time in hiding, and the simultaneous joy and sadness she felt while watching her unaware children from a small hole in the attic where she hid. Jacobs brings readers to a deep sadness by detailing a moment that brought her happiness: how sad must life be if one can be overjoyed by the mere sight of her children, despite the knowledge that she may never touch them again.
Ardent emotion is the sermonizing fuel of the slave narrative. Douglass and Jacobs work to find common ground with readers whom they hope to sway. They shed light on the universally tragic. They describe the horrible violence, and justify the defiant anger with which they react, hoping to instill in readers a similar feeling. But, most importantly, these slave narratives expose a contest for personal identity, and a place among humanity.
Writers like Emerson and Franklin—and captivity narratives such as Rowlandson’s—assert themselves from a ground already established. Theirs is an argument for supporting and bettering oneself, for practicing and protecting freedom. To be sure, so are the narratives of Douglass and Jacobs. These writers, though, must climb not from the solid ground enjoyed by the former, but from a chasm of stifling inhumanity. Their fight has a like purpose, but is fought from an immeasurable negation of self. Thus their narratives are an exercise in self formation, and a lecture to those who trod upon and deny their existence. The slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass are as much the process as the product of their freedom; at once, they explore and extol their place among the human race.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 938-1005. Print
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 819-839. Print
Rowlandson, Mary. “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 127-143. Print.
Smith, John. “The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 59-69. Print.