Archive for Saturday, October 2, 2004

Scholar on slave narratives shares tales with LHS class

October 2, 2004


Jean Fagan Yellin has been studying the same book for 22 years.

Some may consider such scholarly devotion extreme, and Yellin joked Friday about her years studying "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl."

The book is an autobiography written by Harriet Jacobs, who was a slave before the Civil War.

"Another colleague said, 'It's only one book. You've been dealing with one book author for 22 years,'" Yellin said, speaking to a group of Lawrence High School juniors and seniors. "And I say 'Yeah, but it's a really good book.'"

A retired professor from Pace University in New York, Yellin is one of the nation's leading scholars of slave narratives. Friday, she was in Lawrence to speak at Kansas University, but she took time to meet with LHS literature students to discuss her work and Jacobs.

LHS English teacher Susan Tate said her students recently studied slave narratives, so Yellin's visit was timely.

"The students have the opportunity to learn about literary history, about uncovering literary mysteries and also about why the authors we traditionally teach have been included, who has been left out and what voices there might be that we can add to those we already hear from," Tate said.

Yellin told students about how people lost track of Jacobs as the true author of "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Many people mistakenly thought the book was fiction and written by Lydia Maria Child, who at the time was known as a radical abolitionist.

In Yellin's quest to find the book's true author, she looked at letters written by Jacobs.

"And these letters seemed to be discussing 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,'" she said.

She said the letters read the same as the book, but the spelling was poor and there was no use of punctuation or capital letters.

"But it didn't really matter," Yellin said. "If you read them aloud and get past the spelling, you could hear the story."

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