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.
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.
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.
Like all slave narratives, Jacobs’s and Douglass’s works embody the tension between the conflicting motives that generated autobiographies of slave life.
An ironic factor in the production of these accounts can be noted in the generic title “Fugitive Slave Narrative” often given to such works.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.Some of the differences in the readership and reception of Jacobs’s 1861 narrative and Douglass’s first, 1845 autobiography (he wrote two more, in 18, the latter expanded in 1892) reflect simply the differing literary and political circumstances that prevailed at the time of their construction and publication.When Douglass published his Narrative of the Life, the Abolitionist movement was beginning to gain political force, while the long-delayed publication of Jacobs’s Incidents in 1861 was overshadowed by the start of the Civil War.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.Jacobs’s manuscript, finished around four years later but not published for four more, reflects in part the style, tone, and plot of what has been called the sentimental or domestic novel, popular fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, written by and for women, that stressed home, family, womanly modesty, and marriage.In adapting her life story to this genre, Jacobs drew on women writers who were contemporaries and even friends, including well-known writers Lydia Maria Child and Fanny Fern (her employer’s sister in law), but she was also influenced by the popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in 1851.The need to accomplish the form’s most important goal—an end to slavery—took narrators back to the world that had enslaved them, as they were called upon to provide accurate reproductions of both the places and the experiences of the past they had fled.White abolitionists urged slave writers to follow well-defined conventions and formulas to produce what they saw as one of the most potent propaganda weapons in their arsenal.