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During the mid 1800s, slave narratives became an important literary forum for...

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cllawrence | (Level 1) Honors

Posted May 5, 2013 at 4:12 PM via web

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During the mid 1800s, slave narratives became an important literary forum for abolitionists. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave was written in first person, while Sojourner Truth's story was written in third person. Explain what effect these two different points of view might have on a 19th century reading audience in communicating the authors’ purposes.

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lhc | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted May 5, 2013 at 6:38 PM (Answer #1)

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Slave narratives, as the works of Douglass, Truth, and other former slaves writing about their experiences, are considered by many scholars to have become their own genre of American literature; the earliest such narratives date back to the 1700's, and after the American Civil War and the legal abolition of slavery, these writings became more numerous, particularly in the 1930's when the Federal Writers Project endeavored to collect as many accounts of life in slavery as possible, resulting in a 41 volume collection of thousands of pages of oral history given by former slaves. 

The point of view chosen to tell a story, of course, has a great deal to do with the final product, because the manner in which is story is narrated has a direct impact on which details are shared, and which are omitted.  A first person account, like Douglass's is going to tell the story entirely from his perspective, and in Douglass's case, it will be the articulate perspective of a man who became a speaker, writer and publisher upon gaining his freedom.  A third person account will depend on whether it is told in third person limited, which will reveal only the thoughts and feelings of one character, or third person omniscient, which will reveal the thoughts and feelings of many characters.  Douglass's experience, of course, would be that of a man, and his words would probably appeal to an educated populace, as his ability to write and speak was augmented by his ability to call on logical, rational thought, and democratic ideals.  A third-person narrative like Sojourner Truth's, or Harriet Jacobs's, who told her story as the fictitious character Linda Brent in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl might be less influenced by third or first person point of view than by overriding themes, because in addition to the elements common to all slave narratives (separation of families, hard labor, whippings), the stories of young girls and women more often than not included unpleasant (at best) and horrific (at worst) tales of sexual exploitation, usually at the hands of the white plantation owner.  "Miscegenation", the term given to this practice, often resulted in unwanted pregnancies for the slave girl or woman, and despite the father's status as a white landowner, the child would be born a slave.  So while their stories might lack the polish of Douglass's first person narratives, their impact on a reader might be even greater, whether told in first or third person, because of the unique problems faced by a female in slavery.

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