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No one ever questioned T.S. Eliot as to whether or not he is a human being. Harriet Jacobs is just as much of a person, but looked down upon as a possession, as an animal. T.S. Eliot: white, popular, praised. Harriet Jacobs: African-American, hidden, questioned. In comparing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and T.S. Eliot?s ?The Fire Sermon? there lies a correlation between the two literary works. While T.S. Eliot never experienced the life of a slave, ?The Fire Sermon? alludes to white supremacy tainted with dirty scenery, while Harriet Jacobs describes a world where the color of skin can make you feel as if you hadn?t bathed in weeks. Religious references to scriptures also appear in both literary texts. While neither T.S. Eliot nor Jacobs preach religion, the presence of godliness and spirituality explain how different races use religion as a means of escape. Understanding the significance of the historical contexts that shape these works tell why Jacobs and Eliot write at this time and what difference it makes within the text itself.
Historical contexts and the continuing literary value of texts mold the way in which they can be received and survive among competing authors. T.S. Eliot wrote during a time where slavery was illegal. It might have been common for African Americans to hold jobs that were looked upon as ?dirty work? such as being housemaids, cooks, etc. but the extent of brutality among African Americans and the work that they did was voluntary. Harriet Jacobs?s character, Linda Brent, had no such luck. When Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written, Lincoln was president but slaves were still being beaten and housed in plantations. Almost overnight, T.S. Eliot?s works became infamous; Eliot being a white male poet rising to infinite proportions. With a Nobel Prize under his belt as well as other numerous merits, anyone who questions the validity of his writings will almost always be argued with. On the other hand, Harriet Jacobs faces what Rafia Zafar calls a ?double negative of black race and female gender?(). Incidents has not received any sort of awards for literature although the book cover itself states it as ?one of the most important books ever written documenting the traumas and horrors of slavery in the antebellum South?(). Jacobs?s novel has yet to be recognized as a ?
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Ultimately, the difference between race and class cannot be defined by color, but by the situation in which the race and class defines itself. It may be relevant to examine why Eliot chooses his own race to criticize and Jacobs assumes the other route. In The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, the chapter entitled ?The Fire Sermon? begins with a description of a polluted river just after the autumn leaves ?clutch and sink into the wet bank.?(). The inclusion of ?silk handkerchiefs?() among the trash adds a little bit of class to a tainted riverbed. Eliot alludes to the wealthy Anglo-Saxon class of humanity when he writes of ?city directors? and ?their friends?(). On the other hand, Harriet Jacobs refers to her race as ?God ?breathing machines? and ?faithful?(). Although Eliot?s woman in the poem is not a slave, the woman likely feels oppressed due to her social status. Jacobs also describes the ?colored race? as being ?the most cheerful and forgiving people on the face of the earth,?() which constitutes how Jacobs has the ability to work as a nanny for a white woman although she was enslaved by a white woman for much of her life. Eliot criticizes his own race less leniently when he writes about the ?gilded shell?() that the aristocratic people live under. The poem goes on as the woman is being stripped of this status and must start anew with a man who works with ?dirty hands,?() describing the working class man. Oppositely, Linda Brent refuses to give in the temptation of material possessions stating ?I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold?(). Brent says this at having an opportunity to sell her daughter for a great amount of money to the Flint family, despite how well they say they will treat her. Dr. Flint, Linda?s aforementioned oppressor, of Incidents relates to the white men depicted in ?The Fire Sermon.? Both are Anglo-Saxon, financially stable men who like to take control of the lives of others to make up for lack of control in their own lives. In ?The Fire Sermon? the ?Baltimore Billionaire endeavors to engage her in caresses,?() to which the woman does not seem to resist. Sexual advances are often and present throughout Incidents but contrary to ?The Fire Sermon,? Linda never submits herself to sexual acts with her oppressor and instead spends most of her life trying to devoid her life of him. Consequently, the woman who struggles with race and class setbacks seems to overcome the other whom has many advantages over her. The obvious contrasts between the texts resolve any notions that race or class dictate inner strength or contentedness.
Lastly, religious undertones appear in both texts but have different uses. Jacobs discards all conventional descriptions of slavery and repeatedly sums it down to slavery being ?ties cruelly sundered by the Demon?. Clearly, the suffering that Linda Brent incurs in the novel are tolerated not by her mere humanity, but her drive of sheer faith and hope that there is a better life. The people that empower Linda to live a half-normal life such as Mrs. Bruce, who hires her to be a nanny in her home, lead her to say, ?truly, such souls as hers are the kingdom of heaven?. In fact, the further away from Dr. Flint that Linda escapes, the more frequent her allusions to religion occur. For example, when describing her trip to London, the furthest she has been from the plantation, she states that ?my visit to England [is] a memorable event in my life, from the fact of my having there received strong religious impressions?. The citing of various religious exclamations is important in Incidents because it leads to the impression that the novel might not exist had Linda not had her faith to rely on for strength, a trait she prays for many times throughout the trials. Religion presents itself in ?The Fire Sermon? frequently as well, but does not hold as much meaning as does Jacobs?s inclusions. The most prominent of T.S. Eliot?s inclusions of biblical references is to ?the waters of Leman,?() also known as the ?rivers of Babylon,? in Psalms. The fact that the well-bred race has anything to lament about is almost unimaginable. In actuality, religion seems used by the Anglo race in this situation as a means of being social, not a means of improving life. In order to survive, Jacobs explains that slaves hold on to their faith in God and a heaven in which they can be free, surrounding their life around this belief. Eliot?s religious embodiments are sparse and weak in so far as religion during this time was viewed as a matter of convenience; a forefront to what people should be, but never strive to achieve.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and T.S. Eliot?s ?The Fire Sermon? are two completely differentiated stories from different times, experiences, and varied merit. The two texts can relate to one another within their respective contexts if contested that they both have literary value within the context being debated. As far as historical context is concerned, Harriet Jacobs?s narrative demands that the normal standards for literature be reconsidered to include African American slave narratives. Many literature journals and criticisms, such as the acclaimed Norton anthologies, describe Eliot?s work as being a groundbreaking way of writing a poem to tell a story rather than rhyme some words. Some will argue that the varying differences between Incidents and ?The Fire Sermon? are inconsequential, but on closer inspection, benefits occur in understanding the similarities and differences. The mere fact that there is a professor that references to Jacobs?s novel on a syllabus using Eliot?s acclaimed work forces a realization that the two should be on equal playing fields. As far as settling the score, progression will come if comparisons and ties to various forms of literature include the discussion of warranting merits, historical contexts, and why each is essential to grasping the theme of diverse texts.