Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Douglass’s Narrative is as important to history as it is to literature; it speaks as eloquently to African Americans as it does to whites. Ultimately, the autobiography looks at a timeless theme—man’s inhumanity to man—through the lens of slavery.
Historically, the Narrative is a significant document in the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement. In fact, the last sentence of the appendix reminds readers of the “sacred cause” for which the autobiography was written. Douglass earnestly hopes that his story, detailing the horrors of slavery, will hasten the end of “the peculiar institution.”
Douglass’s Narrative belongs to the genre of slave narratives, a popular literary mode from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the American Civil War. Thousands were written during this period, and many were translated into several languages. Douglass’s story epitomizes the best of the genre.
The ex-slave’s story exists in three revised versions: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and two separate editions of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). The original version, however, has received the most critical acclaim. The 1845 rendition has been praised for its narrative skills, succinctness, and clarity.
Although the Narrative is Douglass’s masterpiece, he was also a publisher and journalist. He launched this career after returning from England, where he had fled upon the publication of the Narrative to avoid being returned to slavery. His journalistic endeavors included the North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly, and the New National Era. Despite his prolific journalist output, Douglass’s fame as a writer rests on the Narrative. It is a work that will continue to fascinate both the historian and the literary critic.