Bontemps’ portrait of Douglass is that of a heroic figure who occupies a place in the folklore of the nineteenth century United States. Bontemps depicts Douglass as a champion of freedom, and there are many examples presented in this biography that support this perspective.
When young Fred Bailey (Douglass’ slave name) overheard his master forbidding his wife to teach the young slave the alphabet, he understood the importance of knowing how to read and write. “I now understood the white man’s power to enslave the black man,” wrote Douglass. “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom, and I set out with high hope and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.” This is but one example of the risks that Douglass was to take in his life’s quest for freedom.
At the age of twenty, Douglass risked his life and escaped from slavery, making his way to the North. When he reached New York, Douglass was taken in and helped in his new life of freedom by abolitionists in New York and later in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Three years after his daring escape, Douglass joined the abolitionist movement. For years, he devoted his life to the movement as he traveled and lectured extensively for the cause. Although formally uneducated, his “diploma written on his back,” Douglass proved to be a dramatic, entertaining, and commanding speaker. The vivid examples of the horrors of slavery with which he roused his audiences fill the biography with an interesting and firsthand account of this period in American history from the perspective of a...
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In Free at Last, Bontemps advances no thesis and offers no conclusions about the meaning of Douglass’ life and work. This fact might explain why the biography was critically received as an unscholarly but highly readable account of the life of Frederick Douglass. In any case, the book will capture the imagination of young adult readers mostly because of the dramatic tension created around Douglass’ escape, his tenuous claim to freedom until it was legally bought, and the often-bloody, violent battles at the abolition meetings where Douglass spoke.
By presenting an account of the antislavery movement with this manner of story-telling, Bontemps has re-created events that should serve to educate the young adult reader about the mood of the United States toward African Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War. By blending this history with the life of Douglass, Bontemps focuses the reader’s attention on a figure so captivating that what might otherwise be a dull history lesson of names and dates comes alive as a highly readable and dramatic tale.
Douglass was a highly accomplished individual. His escape and the perseverance with which he fought for what he believed make him an exemplary role model for the young adult reader. As he is presented in Free at Last, Douglass is intended to be, and indeed appears as, an inspirational figure whose contributions to the eradication of slavery should not be overlooked.