Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, one of the finest nineteenth century slave narratives, is the autobiography of the most well-known African American of his time. The narrative chronicles Douglass’ early life, ending soon after his escape from slavery when he was approximately twenty. It focuses on formative experiences that stand out in his life for their demonstration of the cruelty of slavery and of his ability to endure and transcend such conditions with his humanity intact.

Douglass’ work follows the formula of many slave narratives of his day. He structures his story in a linear fashion, beginning with what little information he knew about his origins and progressing episodically through to his escape North. His recurring theme is the brutal nature of slavery, with an emphasis on the persevering humanity of the slaves despite unspeakable trials and the inhumanity of slave owners. Other themes common to Douglass’ and other slave narratives are the hypocrisy of white Christianity, the linkage of literacy to the desire for and attainment of freedom, and the assurance that with liberty the former slave achieved not only a new sense of self-worth but also an economic self-sufficiency. Douglass’ work is characteristic of the nineteenth century in that it is melodramatic and at times didactic.

Despite its conventional traits, however, Douglass’ work transcends formulaic writing. The author’s astute analyses of the psychology of slavery, his eloquent assertions of self, and his striking command of rhetoric lift this work above others in its genre. Particularly memorable scenes include young Frederick’s teaching himself to read, the fight with the slave breaker Covey, the author’s apostrophe to freedom as he watches sailboats on Chesapeake Bay, and his interpretation of slave songs as songs of sorrow.

When Douglass wrote this work in 1845, he had already earned a reputation as one of the most eloquent speakers for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published with a preface written by William Lloyd Garrison, which was followed by a letter by Wendell Phillips. An immediate success, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass soon went through five American and three European editions.

Douglass revised and enlarged the autobiography with later expansions, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). Although these later versions are of historical value for their extension of Douglass’ life story and for their expansion on matters—such as his method of escape—that Douglass purposefully avoided in his first publication, critics generally agree that the spareness and immediacy of the original Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass renders it the most artistically appealing of the autobiographies.

Today Douglass’ book has become canonical as one of the best of the slave narratives, as an eloquent rendering of the American self-made success story, as a finely crafted example of protest literature, and for its influence on two important genres of African American literature—the autobiography and the literary treatment of slavery.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

There are about six thousand records in existence of slaves who either wrote their own stories or told them to others. Of these works, commonly known as slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is nearly universally considered to be the most compelling and well written. Douglass went on to write two more autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), to found several abolitionist magazines—most notably North Star—and to become the greatest African American orator and statesman of his age. However, he is primarily known for his first book, which he wrote before the age of thirty and despite the fact that he had never gone to school. Douglass’s autobiography came to be one of the most frequently taught books at American colleges and universities, where together with Moby Dick (1851), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852) it was regarded as a seminal source for understanding the United States in the antebellum period of the nineteenth century.

Douglass’s story began humbly. Douglass describes how, as a young boy growing up as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, he never knew his age or the identity of his father. Slave owners did not consider it necessary to tell slaves such facts or to try to keep families together. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was separated from him when he was an infant. Douglass saw her only four or five times during his life, and then only at night when she paid surreptitious visits from the plantation twelve miles away where she was sold; she always had to leave before her young son woke up, and she died when Douglass was seven.

It is possible that the man who owned Douglass, Captain Anthony, was his father. Owners often took sexual advantage of their slave women, and as a boy, Douglass saw his master beat his Aunt Hester out of jealousy because a slave from a neighboring plantation paid attention to her. The pain slaves experienced from mistreatment and beatings often led them to sing songs with “words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon” but which conveyed the depths of their hardship. Such songs were their only outlet for expression.

Throughout his childhood on the plantation, Douglass (who did not then have a last name and was simply known as Frederick) witnessed many acts of cruelty, ranging from unjust beatings to unwarranted and unpunished murder of slaves by white owners or their overseers. As a child, he owned only one shirt, had to sleep on the ground, and ate his meals of corn mush from a common trough. It was his good fortune to be sent to Baltimore to the home of Hugh Auld, a relation of Captain Anthony. There, he not only enjoyed better living conditions but also was closer to the North. Had he not been sent to Baltimore, Douglass might never have escaped slavery.

In Baltimore, Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass his abc’s. When Mr. Auld discovered this, he was furious, telling her that teaching a slave how to read was the quickest way to “spoil” him. Deciding that anything his master deemed bad must be good for him, Douglass became determined to teach himself to read. He devised a way to trick other little boys into inadvertently giving him lessons by pretending to know more than they did and making them prove otherwise.

By the age of twelve, Douglass could read essays from a book of famous speeches he acquired. Reading, however, showed him for the first time the true injustice of his own position. For the first time, he realized that there were people opposed to slavery and that there were compelling arguments against the practice. He resolved to run away as soon as he was old enough and the right opportunity presented itself.

Along with understanding the potential power inherent in the ability to read—nothing less than “the power of the white man to enslave the black man”—Douglass also began to understand his own condition by reading essays on liberty. The passages in which he describes his awakened understanding are among the most stirring in all of American literature. A succession of metaphors follows the description of his first reading experiences: Slavery is a “horrible pit” with “no ladder upon which to get out”; preferable to his own condition is that of “the meanest reptile.” Perhaps no other work, fiction or nonfiction, so clearly demonstrates the effect of literacy in developing the associative powers of the thinking mind. Mr. Auld was, in a sense, correct when he says that learning to read and write would “spoil” a slave. Once Douglass developed a figurative capacity of language, he was forever unfit to serve slaveholders obediently. Everything in the world reminded him of the injustice of his own enslavement: “It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”

Until he became old enough to escape, Douglass did his best to tolerate his condition. As a consequence of his small acts of rebellion, however, he was sent to a slave breaker, Mr. Covey, whose job it was to destroy the will of a slave and create an obedient worker and servant. During his first six months with Mr. Covey, Douglass was subjected to strict discipline and endless work. The slave breaker destroyed wills not just by working the slaves hard but by disorienting them and surrounding them with constant observation and deception. There were various ways in which Mr. Covey created an oppressive atmosphere, as when he told the slaves that he was leaving for town, only to return and spy on them. One day, Douglass fought back when Covey hit him; they fought for two hours, until both men were exhausted, but Douglass held his own. He resolved then that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”

The first time he tried to escape, Douglass drew on his ability to write to forge protection papers for himself and several friends. They were caught and jailed, and Douglass was threatened with being sent to Alabama, from where escape was almost impossible. Instead, he was fortunately sent back to Baltimore, and it was determined that he should learn a trade. Douglass worked in a shipyard for one year and became a skilled caulker. When he contracted jobs on his own, earning six or seven dollars a week, he had to give the money to his master.

Douglass eventually escaped to the North. He did not provide details of his flight in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass because he did not wish to create additional obstacles for others who were trying to escape from slavery. He fled first to New York, from where he sent for the woman he planned to marry, a free black woman named Anna. Together, the couple moved to New Bedford, where they sought out the abolitionist Nathan Johnson, who advanced them money and helped them in other ways. Douglass changed his name to Johnson upon reaching New York, but because there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, he accepted Nathan’s suggestion that he call himself Frederick Douglass. In New Bedford, Douglass found white abolitionists as well as blacks who abhorred slavery and tried to protect one another from being sent back south.

Moved by the abolitionist cause, Douglass stood up to speak at an antislavery convention in Nantucket. At first, still feeling like a slave, he was abashed at the thought of speaking to white people, but the words soon came more easily. Douglass became an influential abolitionist himself, which eventually led to his writing the story of his life under slavery.

Those who read the book are astonished that such a document could be produced by a man with no formal education less than seven years after escaping from slavery. In Douglass’s own time, this remarkable feat led to incredulity among his readership. All slave narratives were subject to charges of fraud from apologists for slavery, for which reason Douglass’s book and others open with testament letters from respected white abolitionists. Many of those who heard Douglass speak and found him to be as forceful an orator as he was a writer found it difficult to credit that he was so lately a slave. In an era marked by P. T. Barnum’s famous hoaxes, an era when even the best-intentioned Northern whites believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior to whites, Douglass faced skepticism on all sides. A strong motivation for publishing his story was to provide details of his life that could not be faked. When one early Southern detractor of the book claimed to have been acquainted with Douglass as a slave and to know that he was too uneducated to have written a book, Douglass replied by thanking him for substantiating the book’s main claim, that he was indeed an American slave.

Douglass’s accomplishments after escaping slavery fit well into the tradition of American self-sufficiency and success. By rising above the subjugating conditions of his early years, Douglass provided hope for others that through strength and self-reliance they, too, could achieve great things. His later autobiographies and writings testify to the persistence of prejudice as a limiting force on African Americans even after the end of institutionalized slavery, in the North as well as in the South. However, in the argument for the possibility of human achievement and for the liberty for all humans to pursue their potential, there is perhaps no more heroic example in American letters than Douglass provides in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Summary

Chapter 1 Summary

Preface
Before the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave begins, the reader is provided with a...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

In this chapter, Douglass continues to describe the conditions of being a slave on a plantation owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd, who owns a...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Douglass describes different aspects of Colonel Lloyd's plantation. He begins with a description of Lloyd's garden, whose tasty fruits tempt...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

This chapter recounts a number of cruel and dehumanizing punishments that plantation slaves suffer at the hands of overseers such as Mr....

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Here Douglass provides details of his treatment while living on the plantation of Colonel Lloyd. Because of his young age, he does not have...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Sophia Auld is described as being a kind and generous woman who never has owned a slave. She is a weaver by trade. Unlike most women of that...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

In this chapter, Douglass tells the reader that he lived with his master and mistress in Baltimore for seven years. Early on he realizes that...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

This short chapter covers significant changes in Douglass' life, as he tries to cope with his unstable position of a slave. Soon after moving...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

In March 1832, Douglass leaves Baltimore to live with Thomas Auld, whom Douglass knows from Colonel Lloyd's plantation. Auld and his new wife...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

In the longest chapter of the narrative, Douglass reveals some of the most distressing and empowering moments of his life as a slave. He...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

In his last chapter, Douglass achieves his goal of attaining freedom in the North. Working as a caulker provides Douglass with a number of...

(The entire section is 625 words.)