Dr. Maggie Gordon Froehlich English 135 Section 1



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Sara Kulp

Dr. Maggie Gordon Froehlich

English 135 Section 1

20 October 2008

Identity in the Works of American Writers

After reading and discussing various works of American literature, many similarities arise and it is found that there are relations in ideas and experiences between writers. The concept of a loss of identity and realization of identity itself is seen throughout works in American literature. Identity shapes an individual’s thoughts, actions, morals, and beliefs. It gives an understanding of who one is, where they are from, and what they do. An identity is a one of a kind belonging. No one’s identity is all the same. There are traits that make differences. An identity is a sense of self. It is comfort in knowing one’s character.

A loss of identity and a new sense of self are portrayed through the writings of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, as well as in a captivity narrative by Mary Rowlandson. Jacobs and Douglass share a greater relation in terms of identity due to their lives as slaves. Rowlandson’s account of her life presents a learned identity in a time of survival. Despite each writer’s differences, identity is prevalent in each of their works. Whether it is the loss of an identity or the surfacing of another, the struggle is still present and seen throughout the writings of Jacobs, Douglass, and Rowlandson.

I do believe it is fair to say that writers such as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass are at a loss of identity and self. Both wrote of accounts of slavery and displayed into words the struggles as well as successes they obtained. Harriet Jacobs was unaware of her identity as a slave for the majority of her childhood, just as Douglass was lost in confusion about the true identity of his father. Jacobs recalls later in her life the account of hiding in her grandmother’s attic crawl space for about seven years to escape being sold to a plantation, which cut her ties with the outside world. Even though hiding was a personal choice of Jacobs, this was an instance of trying to create a different life for herself. She lost connection with her two children and continued to live knowing at any moment she could be caught and returned to the South. Having been unaware of her status in society and hiding herself away from the world put a strain on how she saw herself. In Douglass’s situation his inability to know the truth about his biological father posed perplexity of whether or not he was worthy of a life in slavery.

Due to the fact that both Jacobs and Douglass were African American slaves, the idea of a life as a true individual always seemed to be impossible. Often in Douglass’s writing he would question if he would ever be free. The idea of being a slave for life was constantly on Douglass’s mind. The constant reflection of being able to start anew crowded his mind. The thought of creating a new identity for him was a bittersweet goal. Jacobs on the other hand mentioned in her work that even though her grandmother was an important piece of property, she was still under ownership. Jacobs and Douglass shared the lifetime sentence of being under possession. In The Lover, From Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs says at the beginning of that passage, “Why does the slave ever love?” (Jacobs 808). At any instant, the people close to the hearts of slaves can be taken away and erased forever. It is as if their identity never existed. Without freedom there is no sense of self. When that sense of self is missing, so is an identity.

Douglass often spoke about violence targeted at African Americans and the threats imposed upon them. Violence cannot erase love. The identity of them, though at times erased, is taken from the world in a form of violence and is a product of inequality. Living life under the ownership of a master is trying on outside relationships. Jacobs talks about her desire to marry with her master, who thinks of such a request as pointless and insignificant. He says to her “If you must have a husband, you may take up with one of my slaves” (Jacobs 809). Having Jacobs and Douglass living under ownership diminished their chances greatly of ever being able to make a free life for themselves. They would always have the identity of slaves who married other slaves and produce children born into slavery. Their chances of a future life to call their own were forever stricken under the ownership of slaveholders. In her writing, Jacobs reflects on her youth in saying “The influences of slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world” (Jacobs 812). Since she grew up in slavery, she only knew the world in one way-through the vicious eyes of slavery. Douglass also thought often about his life and childhood as a slave. He stated that “I often found myself regretting my own existence and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed” (Douglass 949). The childhood and life of both these writers were taken from them and thrown into a world of abuse and hard work at a young age. Their only identity was that of a slave. Any hope of a new life was not even worthwhile in the minds of those that have grown up throughout the times of slavery. The lives of Douglass and Jacobs show connection in the struggles of slavery. Both their identities were construed in all directions for most of their lives. Life for African American slaves was troubling and often times painful. The loss of identity is a constant in the world of those born into slavery, under ownership, or forever stuck in the turmoil of what their life once was.

The captivity narrative by Mary Rowlandson exhibits a different type of identity, as opposed to the ones lost in the works of Jacobs and Douglass. Her work in the narrative showcases a new identity Rowlandson was forced to adapt to. Her life in comparison to those of Douglass and Jacobs is an entire world away from the struggles they had been put through. Rowlandson’s life of luxury as a minister’s wife slowly transitioned into a game of strict survival. Just as both Jacobs and Douglass did, Rowlandson learned that she had to go forward with the life in front of her. “I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles and to be quieted under them” (Rowlandson 134). She knew that the only way to make it through her troubling times was to adapt to the world around her. Even though Jacobs and Douglass had a lesser chance of creating a new identity for themselves, Rowlandson was given the opportunity to change her life. These changes were in no way for the better of her life, but she learned to push aside her old ways and grow accustomed to new ones. Jacobs and Douglass forever have the struggle of slavery in their past, while Rowlandson may never know the pain of a hard day’s work, she adapted to the ways in which to survive. After being kept captive, she gained a greater outlook on life. “If trouble from smaller matters begin to arise in me, I have something at hand to check myself with and say, why am I troubled?” (Rowlandson 134). She gained a new identity through her struggle. She did need to leave behind the entire life she knew, but to only adapt and learn to survive.

The ways in which Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Mary Rowlandson are connected are all different. There are also similarities in their accounts of struggle, survival, and inequality. Each one is seen throughout works of another. The struggles may be different and a times the same, but each one showcases an identity crisis. Identity is the connection. Each writer was at a loss of one at some time and expressed the ways in which to deal or ignore that problem. An identity is a crucial aspect in life. It is a basis for the way of life. Being put at a loss is a constant struggle to regain a place in life. Adapting to new ways broadens the life of an individual, but also poses confusion. In the works of these three writers, identity or the loss there of, is present. Without an identity, the substance in their work is minimal. All three authors put down on paper the life they knew. Whatever sort of identity they possessed was shown throughout their works. It gives an understanding for the emotions and struggles in the lives of authors.


Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself." The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Seventh ed. New York, NY: Norton, 2008. 947.

Jacobs, Harriet. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Seventh ed. New York, NY: Norton, 2008. 808, 812-13.



Rowlandson, Mary. "A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson." The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Seventh ed. New York, NY: Norton, 2008. 134.

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