INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL Written by Herself By Harriet A. Jacobs Edited by L. Maria Child Edited and with an introduction By Jean Fagan Yellin Harvard University Press. 306 pp. $37.50; $9.95 paper

THE NUMBER of narratives written or dictated by Afro-American slaves runs into the thousands. Such narratives published in the 19th century constituted a literary genre, like the romance or detective novel today, and many became bestsellers. Focusing on the nature of slavery rather than on the internal life of the slave, and laid down according to strict conventions, these works seldom qualify as literature or autobiography. The repetitive pictures of cruelty that, like photographs of Vietnam dead in our own time, once pricked the public conscience and mobilized people to act, now overwhelm us with their sameness. Five or six narratives chosen pretty much at random are enough to make an airtight case against slavery. We stand convinced but unsatisfied, because rarely do we feel we have met a unique individual.

One exception is Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist who wrote three autobiographies to explain how he became master of himself. Another is Harriet Jacobs, a light-skinned, educated slave and mother, whose Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself has resisted 130 years of attempts by patrons, editors and publishers to make the story serve a single cause.

Incidents is eloquent and enlightening testimony. We see how the command of language gives rise to self-examination and thoughts of freedom, while making slavery intolerable. We come away with a visceral understanding of how it felt to be owned, like a candlestick or a cow. Jacobs' story is a woman's story. Brilliantly set in the world of pre-Civil War North Carolina by the commentary of Jean Fagan Yellin, Incidents gives an unblinking account of the sexual and emotional burdens borne by women across the old South.

Harriet Jacobs -- she calls herself Linda Brent in her story -- was born in Edenton, N.C., at the head of Albemarle Sound, in 1813. She grew up in town, under the wing of her maternal grandmother, a free black woman who owned a house and earned a living as a baker. Privileged by comparison to other slaves -- Jacobs was 6 before she realized she had a master -- she suffered from the consequences of her privileges. Her independence denied her the shielding anonymity of the plantation quarters, and her worldly knowledge made her painfully aware of her low status.

When Jacobs was 12, her mistress died and she became the property of the woman's 3-year-old niece. In actuality, the girl's father ruled Jacobs, alternately trying to seduce her and to make her feel like dirt. If she would accept his advances he would establish her as a lady. When, at 15, she took a free black carpenter for a lover, her master raved, "I have a mind to kill you on the spot." He threatened to remove her to Louisiana, but Jacobs knew that his jealousy would save her from this fate. He would not leave her alone with his grown son or his overseer. He -- James Norcom, called Dr. Flint in the story -- kept making "what he called his kind of offers," and she kept turning him down. Though not a man to take no for an answer, he did not force himself upon her. Jacobs felt protected by the gossipy closeness of the town and by her grandmother's moral influence. More to the point, Norcom wanted to conquer. He wanted her to acquiesce by saying yes.

While he was plotting and demanding, Jacobs took another lover and became pregnant. This time the fellow was white and a doctor. In retrospect, she says she wanted to enrage her master and prod him to sell her to her "friend." But he kept her and renewed his pursuit. When she got pregnant a second time by the doctor, Norcom cropped her hair and promised to kill her. Ever searching for the right tactic, he boasted after the baby's birth, " 'These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.' " But Jacobs knew him well. Norcom "loved money, but he loved power more."

Norcom valued the children, not as potential workers on his cotton plantation, but as hostages in his struggle with their mother. He offered at last to free them all if the woman would only submit. Sensing a snare she refused. So Norcom separated the family and sent Jacobs to the plantation where she stayed until she learned that he intended to send her son and daughter there, too, "to be 'broke in.' " The idea that her children might become plantation Negroes motivated her to escape and to plan their release from slavery.

She did not run far. She wound up hiding in an attic above a storeroom in her grandmother's house. There she spent nearly seven years. She hardly had room to move her limbs, yet her mind stayed active and the part of her story dealing with this period brims with energy and surprises. In her confinement she achieved her greatest success. From what she calls "that little dismal hole" she looked out onto the street and watched her children grow up before her eyes. She arranged for their father to buy them, saw that her daughter was sent north, and tricked her master into believing that she was up north, too. In Yellin's words, Jacobs "literally directs a performance in which Dr. Flint {Norcom} plays the fool while she watches, unseen."

The rest of her story -- her ultimate getaway to New York and reunion with her children, her attempts to evade her master's slave hunt and her disillusion with race prejudice in the free states -- is a bit of a letdown. It has to be. The narrative turns outward and begins to wander, just as Jacobs did. It loses focus and tightness. Social conditions, rather than the workings of a mind, take center stage. The narrative never ceases to be interesting, but the reader misses the density of experience which, like steam released from a kettle, cannot be recovered outside of the garret.

Incidents has appeared in at least seven editions since 1861 and is well known to specialists in Afro-American literature. Jacobs' first editor was the abolitionist and social reformer, Lydia Maria Child. (An earlier deal with Harriet Beecher Stowe fell through.) Child's contribution to Incidents consisted mainly of arranging the text. She is probably responsible for adding chapters such as "What Slaves Are Taught to Think of the North" and "Sketches of Neighboring Slaveholders," traditional anti-slavery polemics which seem unlikely to have originated with Jacobs.

Yellin approaches the narrative with feminist convictions. She does not tamper with the text, but her introduction urges a particular way to read it. Jacobs' story, she writes, "represents an attempt to establish an American sisterhood and to activate that sisterhood in the public arena." She finds a "central pattern" in the behavior of white women who sheltered Jacobs, thus betraying false interests of race and class and asserting "their stronger allegiance to the sisterhood of all women."

BUT IS THAT what was happening? Or were the white women attracted to Jacobs because she was so very much like them? Fair-skinned and fine-featured, literate and poised, Jacobs differed from her protectors chiefly in her legal status. She herself recoiled from contact with coarse plantation slaves and she moved in white society as a fugitive and a free person. Jacobs was daring and heroic, but not for trying to found a sisterhood against male opposition. By promoting the narrative for present purposes, Yellin misses an opportunity to explore the troubled relationship between feminists and black abolitionists in 1861, an alliance that was moving toward an open split.

Yellin's enthusiasm leads to overwriting. Reflecting on Jacobs' suggestion that slave women should not be judged by white morality, she declares, "Located within the larger context of a narrative that affirms her value, this quiet comment resonates with the ringing interrogatives with which Sojourner Truth redefined womanhood."

This statement leaves most readers in the dark. It assumes a familiarity with terms which, in truth, is limited to a small circle of scholars. It uses big words where little words would do better. Similarly, we are told that, "Like all slave narratives, Incidents was shaped by the empowering impulse that created the American Renaissance." Is everyone so familiar with the American Renaissance that it can stand without explanation? And isn't "empowering impulse" one of those starchy phrases that ought to be rested or reconsidered?

In contrast to the introduction which is weighted down by ideology, Yellin's notes have a leavening effect on the text. A real voice speaks in them, a companion to the reader and to the narrator at the same time. The notes bring Jacobs' world closer to us while striking a balance between personal details and explanations of impersonal social forces. Yellin's original research adds a dimension of knowledge that makes names and incidents stick with us. She has a gift for picking out the pertinent fact, the relevant source, the kindred idea. In the notes, she is the editor Jacobs sought and needed.

Theodore Rosengarten is the author of, most recently, "Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter," which won a National Book Critics Circle Award for 1986.