MacKethan (1) observes that African American writers perfected what is today seen as one of America’s original native genres of written literature. This happened for the duration of the past three decades of permissible slavery in the United States of America, running from early 1830s to the end of the Civil War. These are none other than Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs who through eloquently expressing their ideas bring out this indigenous genre in their respective works of “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass: an American Slave” (1845) and “Incidences in the Life of a Slave Girl” (1861).
Just like all other slave narratives, the works of Douglas and Jacob exemplify the tension involving the conflicting motives that caused autobiographies of life in slavery. Their collective ultimate goal of bringing an end to the slavery that was entrenched in American society drove them back to the world where they had been enslaved and as result they ended up providing accurate accounts of both the experiences of the past and the places they had fled. White abolitionists forced them to stick to well-illustrated principles and formulas to come up with what was seen as on of the most powerful weapons of propaganda in their armory (MacKethan, 1). They again persisted on including some validating endorsements of their own to the introductions and prefaces of the slaves’ narrations. However to Douglas and Jacob, the chance to narrate their stories composed of something more personal that was a way to write an identity in a nation that denied them their human rights openly.
Their ability to work vigilantly within the genre prospects created by and for the white audiences highly articulates them as they found a means of individualizing their works and voice their own concerns in pursuit for selfhood in a way that could balance against the values and the aims of white audience. Looking at the comparison of between the two narratives presented by Douglass and Jacobs, there is an illustration of a full range of demands and circumstances that slaves could undergo (MacKethan, 1). There is an outstanding similarity is the way in which a set format controlled their narratives’ publications. The freed slave narrators had to give an accurate and detailed account of their experiences in oppression with an emphasis of their sufferings in the hands of the brutal masters and their strong drive to get free. They were both in a similar environment; as slaves faced with the same conditions of oppression and with a common objective of being freed at some point despite their gender differences.
Literacy scene is one of the most important aspects that is observed in both narratives as both writers vividly outline how they later came to learn how to read and write, something that was declared as unachievable by proslavery writers. Authenticity was supreme but readers are also exposed to excitement as Jacobs and Douglass included dramatic events for instances, the way they managed to escape fro their masters. Slave narrators had to present their records as true Christians even as they testified to the hypocrisy of their allegedly devout owners. All of requirements as called for by their masters were incorporated in the narratives of both of them but they additionally included individualized touches that which transformed the procedures of their own reasons.
Looking at both narratives, you realize that there is a reflection of varying political and literary conditions which existed at the time of their construction and publication. During the publication of “Narrative of the Life” by Douglass, it was at time when the Abolitionist movement was starting to increase political power. On the other hand, Jacobs “Incidences” experienced delays to be published later in 1861 to be surpassed by the beginning of the Civil War ((MacKethan, 1)). Douglas was also a publicly applauded personality from the his initial days as a speaker then as a writer but Jacobs was not known to many, her publication”Incidences in the Life of a Slave Girl” was out of site soon after its publication without enjoying a large sale while for Douglas, his first book encountered nine editions in the two initial years to finally become the basis for all other slave narratives.
Another way expressing the differences in the narratives is the way in which the narratives grew. Douglass work grew from the story of slavery that he perfected while a speaker at Massachusetts Antislavery Society. He was hired to lecture in 1841 three years after his escape and therefore developed skills such as rhetorical aspects frequently used in orations and sermons to be later used in his narrative that is enriched with antithesis, repetition among other strategies of classical persuasive(Douglass, 400). He based his narrative on sermon, his career as a speaker and reflected on his mastery as a commanding preacher together imagery and rhythms of biblical scriptures which were known to his audiences.
He also mirrored the Emersonan idealism so outstanding in the 1840s as he involved himself as a struggling hero declaring his strong personal moral principles for the purpose of bringing conscience to bear against the country’s utmost evil. Additionally, his story could be read like “a classic male initiation myth”. His tale traced the way a youth grew from innocence to experience and also how he could develop to successful manhood from boyhood (MacKethan, 1). For him, the tough and journey patterns of his genre were revised to emphasize the will of the slave to change himself to a free America citizen from human chattel.
Contrastingly, Jacobs’ narrative commenced around 1853, prior to living as an escapee slave in the North for a period of ten years. She started work on her narrative privately short after her freedom was purchased by Cornelia Grinnell Willis where she was offered a secure employment in New York City as domestic servant. She was done with have manuscript about four years later and remained unpublished for another four years. Her reflection of the narrative is partly a plot, tone and style of what scholars call domestic or sentimental novel. It is also viewed as mid-nineteenth century’s popular fiction that was written by a woman for women audience, stressing marriage, home, family and womanly modesty. She drew on contemporary women writers like Fanny Fern and Lydia Maria Child both of whom were her friends to get adapt her life story to the genre. She also drew her influence from the Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popularity (MacKethan, 1).
It is obvious that memories, experiences, situations, treatments and experiences are observed in a different way between woman and woman. This was not ant different for Fredrick Douglas, a man and Harriet Jacobs, a woman for they were subjected to different points of view when it comes to slavery hence their works also some different perspectives and as woman was definitely exposed to some disadvantages. Jacobs perceived slavery differently from Douglass because she never noticed she was a slave while a child. It was a disadvantage to her because it could become normal to her and turn to a safety issue if she did not discover her place within the races and when a time could come for her to be sold. The situation would be different if she was prepared. She states that she was born a slave and she never knew. Contrastingly, Douglass realized that he was a slave at a tender age. This is clear when he states, “A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood” (Douglass, 395), this clearly shows how he was confronted with the realities of slavery while still a small boy.
To sum up the whole discussion about these two great writers, it should be noted that they were both determined to fight for their freedom to death. However, while Douglas explains with details how a slave struggled in a physical fight with his supervisor through odds to develop in to a man. For Jacobs, her gender dictated a different course in her narrative. She was pregnant, bearing a child of her white lover at the age of only fifteen and erroneously reasoned that due to her condition, she would be sold by her profligate master together with her child. As a mother with what she terms as “ties to life” her self interests were overtaken by her concern for children (Jacobs, 279).
For this reason, in her narrative, other than Jacobs only searching for freedom, she also looks for her children’s secure home. She might be longing for a husband but due to her reprehensible early relationship that led to two children out of marriage she sarcastically points out that her story concludes not in the normal manner with marriage but with freedom. She still mourns even at this last stage that does no her own home although her children are grown. In contrast, the Douglass ends his narrative with as a speaker in front of an enthusiastic audience and with a feeling of much excitement over his freedom. Even though the lives of both writers might not have moved in the same direction, it is very significant to note that they had a common proclamation in their narratives. They never lost their willpower not only to achieve freedom from slavery but also respect their personal humanity and that of other people (MacKethan, 1).