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May 20, 2014

Harriet Jacobs, born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813, was the first formerly enslaved woman to write a narrative of freedom: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, first published in 1861, now widely recognized as a masterpiece and a seminal part of the genre of 19th-century African American narratives of freedom. Incidents pseudonymously details Jacobs’ early life in slavery, her exposure to grievous harm and sexual violence at the hands of a cruel master, her marriage to and bearing of children by a different white man, her efforts to get her children out of the South, and her own flight from slavery — first hiding locally for seven years in her grandmother’s attic, and then fleeing to New York and eventual, hard-bought freedom.

photograph of Harriet JacobsJacobs is an eloquent, gripping author, both in Incidents and in her other surviving writings (recovered in large part by the work of Professor Jean Fagan Yellin, who also penned Jacobs’ biography). Jacobs’ imagery and metaphor are generally original or biblical, not classical; she wasn’t formally educated, though her daughter studied Latin and Greek in the North while Jacobs herself was still fugitive. Jacobs uses one biblical image — that of the “bitter cup” — in a way that bears comparison with the image of the “honeyed cup” in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. (I’ll not be suggesting a classical allusion in Incidents, but rather a rich intertextual coincidence.)

When Jacobs was visiting her family’s former home in Edenton as a free woman, in 1867, she sent a letter to Ednah Cheney of the New England Freedman’s Aid Society. It begins:

I felt I would like to write you a line from my old home. I am sitting under the old roof. twelve feet from the spot where I suffered all the crushing weight of slavery. thank God, the bitter cup is drained of its last dreg. There is no more need of hiding places to conceal slave Mothers. yet it was little to purchase the blessings of freedom. I could have worn this poor life out there, to save my Children from the misery and degradation of Slavery.

“The bitter cup is drained of its last dreg.” The power of her metaphor for American slavery comes not only from biblical associations (Psalms 75:7–8, Isaiah 51:17–23, Jeremiah 25:15–16, Matthew 27:34, Revelation 14:9–11), but also from how it uses a simple, familiar image to understate the suffering, the cruelty of the experience.

Jacobs had used this image before, in Incidents. In a passage describing the life of an enslaved girl on a neighboring plantation, Jacobs writes, “[s]he drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink.” The metaphor here is more extended, more strongly stated, and powerful. The three elements of sin, shame, and misery are at once straightforward and vague: the Cup of Sin and Shame intimates the pain and the horror of life under slavery, without disclosing concrete horrors, only hinting at what they might be.

I’d like to set Jacobs’ use of the bitter cup imagery beside a rather earlier, non-biblical use of it. The speaker of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, expounding difficult, scientific philosophy in poetic form, discusses at the outset of his work the challenges he faces:

When doctors try to give bitter medicine to boys, first they coat the rim of the cup with sweet shining honey, so that the boys’ gullible young age will be deceived, at least as far as their lips, and along the way they’ll drink the bitter medicine and, though tricked, they will not become sick…Just so now, since this philosophical doctrine seems generally difficult…I want to explain it to you with the sweet-spoken song of the Muses and to coat it with poetic honey, so to speak, in case I might in this way keep your mind on my verses.

For the Lucretian speaker, the bitter cup of philosophy is a necessary grief, and it’s his art, his “poetic honey,” that makes this medicine palatable for the mind.

Jacobs’ detailed account of her experiences is likewise a distasteful curative. Incidents offers a repository of knowledge important for us to be able to understand what we have done and what we must prevent from happening ever again. This is the task she sets forth in the preface to Incidents: “to describe the extremity of their [i.e., enslaved persons’] sufferings, the depth of their degradation.” But unlike the speaker’s claims in De Rerum Natura, Jacobs does not offer honey on the cup. Her narrative draws its compelling drive and literary value not from the sweet-spoken song of the Muses, but rather from a narrative ethos of direct, unadorned, undaunted truth-telling.

Where the Lucretian speaker treats the incidentally-bitter lesson as requiring sweetening to be palatable, for Jacobs the bitter cup of slavery is itself the lesson. Jacobs thus places the overall focus squarely on what I believe she’d say is the most important feature of her narrative, more important than her own personal story: her exposé of the systemic maltreatment and torture of countless enslaved women — as Jacobs says, “two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.”

In March of 1854, while writing Incidents, Harriet Jacobs sent a letter to Amy Kirby Post, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who urged Jacobs to write her autobiography:

there has been more than a bountiful share of suffering given enough to crush the finer feelings of stouter hearts than this poor timid one of mine but I will try and not send you a portraiture of feelings just now the poor Book is in its Chrysalis state and though I can never make it a butterfly I am satisfied to have it creep meekly among some of the humbler bugs

Jacobs’ narrative, we can be sure, is no humble bug. And she deliberately avoids the butterflies and the poetic honey in her unflinching presentation of the bitter cup.


T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Editor-in-Chief of the SCS Blog and Associate Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius' De Rerum Natura and Satire, Plautus: Curculio, and two forthcoming books, A Commentary on Plautus' Curculio (Michigan) and Masks (Tangent). He can be contacted at