Town as Text: Harriet Jacobs and the Architecture of Literary and Historical Memory in Edenton, North Carolina


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In her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs’s relationships with and toward the constructed, physical spaces around her—plantation houses, hidden crawl spaces, jails, and churches—are intentionally obscured to create a patina of anonymity in her writing, yet the relational distance between and among locations nevertheless creates a map of an antebellum Edenton, North Carolina—the town of her enslavement—that can be read alongside her prose. Against this half-real, half-literary cartography sits presentday Edenton, where her work and life are signified more by their absence in the face of predominantly colonial and antebellum historical markers placed downtown and accompanying well-preserved architecture of Edenton’s elite. Jacobs’s use of both strategically abstract location markers, along with abolitionist rhetorical devices aimed at Northern White audiences, suggest that she is keenly conscious of her ability to shield Edenton by what she omits as much as what she shares, and thus asserts the power she has to literally name names. Her decision not to is a threat as much as an anonymizing tool for conceptualizing Edenton for abolitionist readers as an “everytown.” However, the Edenton outside of her text is not every town—its specific traits unique to the region both contributed to her escape and caused the climate that necessitated the departure. Jacobs further uses her Edenton as a stand-in for all other slaveholding communities, a metonymic tactic which urges the reader to scrutinize their own towns and, in doing so, to condemn the institution of chattel slavery.