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Promoting the theme of racial equality in stirring orations and newspaper editorials in the mid-1800s, Frederick Douglass was recognized by his contemporaries as a fore most abolitionist of his era. Douglass’s status as a powerful and effective prose writer is based primarily on his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, a work that remains a premier example of the slave narrative, a significant genre in American literature, and places Dou glass among other authors who stress the importance of individual experience and moral conviction. Regarded as one of the most compelling documents produced by a fugitive slave, the Narrative has transcended its immediate historical significance and is now regarded as a land mark American autobiography.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Avenue to Freedom
Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland, around 1817, often lamented the fact that he did not know the exact date of his birth. Although the common assumption was that he was the son of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony, Dou glass never knew for certain the identity of his father. Separated from his mother as an infant, he was raised by his maternal grandmother on Anthony’s estate and enjoyed a relatively happy childhood until he was transferred to the plantation of Anthony’s employer. At the age of eight, he was again transferred, this time to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, where he served as a houseboy. His time with the Aulds proved to be invaluable, as his mistress began teaching him to read until her husband insisted that she stop. overhearing Auld rebuke his wife for educating a slave, Douglass realized that literacy could be an avenue to freedom, and he secretly continued learning to read on his own.
At the age of thirteen, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays and speeches about human freedom. While the book would prove to have a lasting impact on the young man, its immediate effect was to increase Douglass’s desire to experience the freedom he could only read about. In 1835, while rented out to a farmer, Douglass began clandestinely teaching other slaves, as well as free African Americans, to read. He also planned to escape with five other slaves by stealing a boat and sailing up the Chesapeake Bay before heading on foot to Philadelphia. Before they could act, however, their plan was discovered, and they were all jailed. Douglass was returned to Auld and then sent to work in the Baltimore shipyards. In 1838, Douglass disguised himself in sailor’s clothing and escaped to New York.
Once free, Douglass became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. After speaking about his life as a slave at a meeting in 1841, Douglass embarked on a career as a lecturer for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, becoming the most prominent African American figure in America. Ironically, his exceptional public speaking abilities led many of his white audiences to question his slave upbringing and the truth of his stories. In response, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Dou glass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), one of the few slave narratives that was not produced by a ghost writer. At the same time the book explained his early life and how he gained his knowledge and oratory skills, it also revealed his whereabouts to his master.
The Costs of Slavery
Concerned that he could be returned to captivity under the fugitive slave laws, Dou glass traveled to England and Ireland, where he was well received by social reformers. With funds he received from sympathetic abolitionists, Douglass returned to the United Sates in 1847 and bought his permanent freedom from his last owner. With his remaining money, he established The North Star, a weekly abolitionist paper. Although devoted mainly to antislavery, the paper also supported the causes of African American education and women’s suffrage. While many members of the American Anti-Slavery Society believed that moral arguments were the best way to end slavery, Douglass championed direct political action and even encouraged violence by slaves.
Revision and Rebellion
During the 1850s and 1860s, Douglass continued his activities as a journalist and abolitionist speaker. In 1855, he published My Bondage and My Freedom, a revision of his autobiography. The following year, he began meeting with the fiery abolitionist John Brown. Though Douglass agreed with Brown’s idea of a slave rebellion, he did not support Brown’s plan to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. Nevertheless, after Brown’s raid failed, Douglass feared he might be arrested as an accomplice, so he fled to Canada before traveling back to England, where he lectured for six months.
Civil War and Reconstruction
After the American Civil War began in 1861, Douglass openly criticized President Abraham Lincoln when he did not immediately name ending slavery as the main goal of the war. Lincoln, however, recognized the importance of Douglass’s input and twice summoned him to the White House for conferences. Throughout the war, Douglass supported the use of African American troops to help the Union cause. When two African American Massachusetts regiments were finally created in 1863, two of Douglass’s sons were among the first recruits.
During the years of Reconstruction that followed the end of the Civil War, Douglass pushed for civil and voting rights for African Americans. In 1868, he saw Congress pass the Fourteenth Amendment, recognizing the citizenship of all people born in America. Two years later, Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to all black males. Many women criticized Douglass for supporting this amendment, as it did not give women the right to vote as well.
Always an Activist
Douglass spent his last years in civil service positions. In addition to serving as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, he was assigned consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. In 1881, he published the final version of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, he continued speaking out on black civil rights and other issues of inequality. In 1884, two years after his first wife’s death, he married Helen Pitts, his white secretary who was twenty years his junior, a move that drew severe criticism from people of both races. Douglass died in Washington, D.C., of a heart attack on February 25, 1895, having just returned from a women’s suffrage convention.
Works in Literary Context
Of the approximately six thousand documented slave narratives, Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is the most remarkable. Regarded as a classic in African American autobiography, it was one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century. Five thousand copies were sold in four months, and more than thirty thousand copies were sold domestically and internationally during the first five years the book was in print.
One of the most influential genres in African American literature, the slave narrative generally refers to a first-person account by a slave or former slave describing how slavery shaped his or her life. The earliest form of African American prose, as well as the earliest form of African American autobiography, the most famous slave narratives were published between 1830 and 1860 when the abolitionist movement in the United States increased demand for eyewitness accounts of slavery. Because they circulated information not only about slavery, but also about Southern life, slave narratives were a vital part of the abolitionist movement.
Slave narratives are also important in African American history because they are a declaration of African American humanity and a testament to the relationship between literacy and freedom. Specifically in the case of Douglass’s narrative, abolitionists pointed to the quality of its writing to demonstrate the intellect of an author who, once considered property, was to be recognized as a rational human. Nonetheless, Douglass’s skillful writing led some to doubt the authenticity of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, arguing that a former slave lacked the literacy to produce such a work. Some Southerners were eager to prove that Douglass’s accounts of brutality were lies, even though the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is filled with specific names and places, a daring level of realism in writing for one who was legally still a runaway slave. Valued by historians as a detailed, credible account of slave life, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself is also widely acclaimed as an extraordinarily expressive story of self-discovery and self-liberation.
Works in Critical Context
Some of Douglass’s contemporaries questioned the veracity of his works. Other critics viewed his works as simply antislavery propaganda. This view persisted until the 1930s, when scholars called attention to the intrinsic merit of Douglass’s writing, acknowledging him as the most important figure in nineteenth-century African American literature. Appealing to the various political, sociological, and aesthetic interests of generations of critics, Douglass has maintained an enviable reputation as a speaker and writer. In the 1940s and 1950s, academics, such as Alain Locke, deemed Douglass’s autobiographies to be classic works symbolizing the African American role of protest, struggle, and aspiration in American life. In recent years, Douglass’s critics have become far more exacting, analyzing, for example, the specific narrative strategies that Douglass employs to establish a distinctly individual black identity.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Of the many slave narratives produced in the nineteenth century, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself has received the most critical attention and is widely regarded as the best. Scholar David W. Blight claims that ”what sets Douglass’s work apart in the genre . . . is that he interrogated the moral conscience of his readers, at the same time that he trans planted them into his story, as few other fugitive slave writers did.” Nevertheless, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself remained out of print from the 1850s until 1960, primarily because itы was recognized for its prominence in the slave narrative genre, not for its value as literature. Not until critic H. Bruce Franklin called attention to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself ‘in the 1970s was it approached as a literary work.
Since then, the text has received scrutiny from a wide variety of perspectives. Scholar Kelly Rothenberg, for instance, discusses Douglass’s use of elements from African American folklore. John Carlos Rowe examines Dou glass’s text in economic and political terms, asserting that the author ”was clearly developing his own understanding of the complicity of Northern capitalism and Southern slave-holding in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.” Academic A. James Wohlpart has explored Dou glass’s work in the context of religion. According to Wohlpart, Douglass, attempting to reconcile the institution of slavery with the institution of the Christian Church that supported slavery, operated ”within the discourse of white Christianity at the same time he challenged it.” Still other critics have examined the politics of language in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, with Lisa Yun Lee noting that in the first half of the narrative, Douglass is silent and powerless, but as he acquires the ability to speak within the ”dominant discourse,” he becomes increasingly powerful.
- Baker, Houston. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
- Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
- Couser, G. Thomas. American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
- Locke, Alain. The New Negro. New York: Atheneum, 1977.
- Rowe, John Carlos. ”Between Politics and Poetics: Frederick Douglass and Postmodernity.” In Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies, ed. by Gutter
- Lenz, Hartmut Keil, and Sabine Brdck-Sallah. Frankfurt, Germany: Campus Verlag, 1990.
- Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
- Franklin, H. Bruce. ”Animal Farm Unbound Or, What the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Reveals about American Literature.” New Letters 43 (Spring 1977): 25-26.
- Lee, Lisa Yun. ”The Politics of Language in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave.” MELUS 17 (Summer 1991-1992): 51-59.
- Stone, Albert E. ”Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative.” College Language Association Journal 17 (1973): 192-213.
- Wohlpart, A. James. ”Privatized Sentiment and the
- Institution of Christianity: Douglass s Ethical Stance in the Narrative. American Transcendental Quarterly 9 (September 1995): 181-194.
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