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Tearing the Envelope: Harriet Jacobs’s “Epistolary Activism”

Pia Wiegmink

Pages 373 - 390



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In her debut as an author in June 1853, Harriet Jacobs published a letter in the “New-York Tribune” in which she responded to a transatlantic epistolary exchange that took place between female antislavery supporters in Britain and former First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. In this letter and via this transatlantic exchange, I argue, Jacobs was able to inscribe her racial and gendered position as an African American woman into the American body politic. Broadly construed, this essay wants to de-emphasize the dominance of the genre of the slave narrative in African American life writing, and to draw attention to the form and function of letter writing in American antislavery literature. In the context of Jacobs’s work, I argue, letter writing was not only a form of verification and authentication, but also a means of participating in a particular mode of communication that deliberately blurred the lines of the private and public, the amateur and professional, and the national and transnational. While Jacobs very much adhered to the protocols of sentimental literature in her 1861 slave narrative “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”, we witness in this first published letter how she experiments with and realizes additional literary personae, complementing the figure of the fugitive slave with that of the political commentator and the female activist.

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