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Douglass also reflected the Emersonian idealism so prominent in the 1840s, as he cast himself in the role of struggling hero asserting his individual moral principles in order to bring conscience to bear against the nation’s greatest evil.In addition, his story could be read as a classic male “initiation” myth, a tale which traced a youth’s growth from innocence to experience and from boyhood into successful manhood; for Douglass, the testing and journey motifs of this genre were revised to highlight the slave’s will to transform himself from human chattel into a free American citizen.
Working cautiously within the genre expectations developed by and for their white audiences, highly articulate African American writers such as Douglass and Jacobs found ways to individualize their narratives and to speak in their own voices in a quest for selfhood that had to be balanced against the aims and values of their audiences.
(See also "How to Read a Slave Narrative" in Freedom's Story.) A comparison of the narratives of Douglass and Jacobs demonstrates the full range of demands and situations that slaves could experience.
Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: American Slave Narrators Lucinda Mac Kethan Alumni Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, North Carolina State University National Humanities Center Fellow ©National Humanities Center During the last three decades of legal slavery in America, from the early 1830s to the end of the Civil War in 1865, African American writers perfected one of the nation’s first truly indigenous genres of written literature: the North American slave narrative.
The genre achieves its most eloquent expression in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl did not fictionalize or even sensationalize any of the facts of Jacobs’s experience, yet its author, using pseudonyms for all of her “characters,” did create what William Andrews has called a “novelistic” discourse, including large segments of dialogue among characters.
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Jacobs used the devices of sentimental fiction to target the same white, female, middle-class, northern audiences who had been spellbound by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet her narrative also shows that she was unwilling to follow, and often subverted, the genre’s promotion of “true womanhood,” a code of behavior demanding that women remain virtuous, meek, and submissive, no matter what the personal cost.
In his first narrative, he combined and equated the achievement of selfhood, manhood, freedom, and voice.
The resulting lead character of his autobiography is a boy, and then a young man, who is robbed of family and community and who gains an identity not only through his escape from Baltimore to Massachusetts but through his ability to create himself through telling his story.
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.