Study Guide

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

by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Critical Essay on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

Although Frederick Douglass wrote several autobiographies during his lifetime, none continues to have the lasting literary impact of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. From its publication in 1845 to its present status in the American literary canon, the Narrative has become one of the most highly acclaimed American autobiographies ever written. Published seven years after Douglass' escape from his life as a slave in Maryland, the Narrative put into print circulation a critique of slavery that Douglass had been lecturing on around the country for many years. Yet while the Narrative describes in vivid detail his experiences of being a slave, it also reveals his psychological insights into the slave/master relationship.

What gives the book its complexity is Douglass' ability to incorporate a number of sophisticated literary devices that fashion a particular African-American identity. Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his introduction to Classic Slave Narratives, claims that ‘‘Douglass' rhetorical power convinces us that he embodies the structures of thoughts and feelings of all black slaves, that he is the resplendent, articulate part that stands for the whole, for the collective black slave community.’’ Borrowing from a wide range of discourses that include slave narratives, autobiography, sentimental rhetoric, and religious and classical oratory, Douglass creates a testament not only to the horrors of slavery but to the power of the human spirit to transcend odds. The Narrative is a compelling document that shows Douglass' ability to transform himself from an illiterate, oppressed slave to an educated, liberated free man not only literally, by escaping slavery, but also figuratively, in language.

At the time that Douglass wrote his Narrative, most African Americans, especially in the South, had few opportunities to learn to read and write. Further, they also had little legal representation or standing that could protect them from physical harm or provide them access to legal action. Yet as a slave, Douglass manages both to teach himself to learn and to protect himself from harm, as in his showdown with Mr. Covey. The fight that erupts between Douglass and Covey is the turning point of the Narrative. It shows that Douglass' fight to gain freedom is also a fight to gain a selfhood, to be a man. His famous line, ''You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,’’ counters the prevailing argument of the day that slaves were not humans. He illustrates in this line that slaves were perceived as non-humans because they were not treated or represented as such, not because they were biologically inferior, as many claimed.

Throughout the Narrative, Douglass reveals how slaves were denied basic concepts that would provide them with the means of constructing legitimate identities. For example, Douglass mentions at the beginning of the Narrative that slaves rarely knew when they were born, as ‘‘it is the wish of most masters ... to keep their slaves thus ignorant.’’ To know one's birth date, in a sense, provided one with a particularly human identity, a location in time and history. Slaveholders denied even this basic knowledge to keep slaves psychologically on the same level as animals. Throughout the narrative, Douglass brings to light a number of ways in which slaveholders withheld information from slaves in order to keep them from having a basic understanding of themselves as human beings. Such insights lend credibility and power to his narrative at the same time that they reveal his own coming into being as a person. As American Studies professor Albert E. Stone claims, in ''Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass' Narrative,’’ "For the more...

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The Dilemma of Frederick Douglass: The Slave Narrative as Literary Institution

In the struggles of Frederick Douglass lies the intellectual history of nineteenth-century America. Douglass directly influenced much of that history and touched virtually every issue of consequence in black-white relations. Once he mounted an anti-slavery platform in the summer of 1841, neither abolition nor Afro-American writing were ever the same again. He was so prescient, his successes so many, the strength of his writing and speaking so great, we are inclined to pass quickly over many of his conflicts, confident that history has upheld the positions he took. In the best-known example of the pre-war period, later historians have indeed credited him with exposing the intellectual compromises and sheer blindness of the Garrisonian wing of the abolition movement. Yet not all features of even that quarrel have been explored, and on one aspect it is literary historians who must speak.

In the first of his life stories, the monumental Narrative of 1845, Douglass leads up to his rise to prominence in abolition circles, his association with Garrison and other leaders, and his stunning successes as lecturer and writer in the anti-slavery cause. His second narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom of 1855, appears well after the break with Garrison and the advent of his own, independent literary career. In a passage of arresting compression, he notes a personal dilemma—and thereby the constraint felt by a generation of slave lecturers and narrators.

‘‘Let us have the facts,’’ said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narratives. ‘‘Give us the facts,’’ said Collins, ‘‘we will take care of the philosophy.’’ ... ‘‘Tell your story, Frederick,’’ would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison.... I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. I could not always curb my moral indignation ... long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost everybody must know. Besides, I was growing and needed room.

The distant occasion of this recollection is Douglass's experience as anti-slavery agent and lecturer. Blended with this is the later, more immediate memory of his trials as author and international representative of American anti-slavery societies. They are two sides of one coin. The literary history of the antebellum slave narrative is also put at issue in this passage. For we now know that other writers, before Douglass and during his lifetime, were equally distressed by the form they had unwittingly inherited. But it is he who poses the major questions—questions that American literary history has not yet addressed. What are the "facts" the people crave? Who are the "people" who crave them? Who are the "we" Collins refers to, and what is the ''philosophy'' ''we'' will take care of? Why are ‘‘the facts’’ equivalent to Douglass's whole ‘‘story’’? Why is that story pinned down to narratives that are merely ‘‘simple’’? Why does he choose the word "obey" to describe his relations with fellow abolitionists? Why is he asked to limit himself to narrating the wrongs of slavery? Was he not already denouncing them, exercising his moral indignation? why did he feel constrained to ‘‘a circumstantial statement of the facts''? Why did he feel ‘‘almost everybody must know’’ those facts already? Why did not the form of the slave narrative provide him with room to grow and flourish?

Although the questions Douglass raises are intertwined, they cannot be answered fully in an essay. Why for instance does he challenge the form of the slave narrative in a slave narrative? So each question subdivides itself interminably. Yet tentative answers are possible if one permits a summary convergence. All of his misgivings imply that the narrative as a form has an existence prior to and beyond the narrator's control or possession. Is that implication valid? If so, who owns the slave narrative?

The question itself has a long history, extending to the very beginnings of the genre in the eighteenth century. As the earliest slave narrative in America, some historians cite the ten-page transcript of a trial held in Boston 3 August to 2 November 1703. Adam Negro's Tryall is in text and celebrity the quarrel between two very prominent men, Samuel Sewell and John Saffin, who battle one another in court over the terms of Adam's bondage. Adam is called upon to recount a small portion of his life in response to interrogation, but he is merely the proximate cause in a dispute between white figures. A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man, published in 1760, is an actual personal narrative and is told in the first person. Its title page joins it to earlier and highly popular stories of Indian captivity. It also indicates the heavy burden of "facts" the slave narrative will carry. For in fourteen pages we will be given a circumstantial statement of how in negligence Hammon fled from his owner, suffered daily hardships thereafter, went to sea and was captured, then tortured by Florida Indians, endured nearly five years of captivity, and by divine providence was reunited with his owner and returned to Boston. Although Hammon's life has been filled with wonders, his preface explains why the narrative will be limited to a circumstantial rehearsal of bare facts:

As my Capacities and Conditions of Life are very low, it cannot be expected that I should make those Remarks on the Sufferings I have met with, or the kind Providence of a good GOD for my Preservation, as one in a higher Station; but shall leave that to the Reader as he goes along, and so I shall only relate Matters of Fact as they occur to my Mind.

In this carefully wrought sentence we have the earliest instance of the distinction noted by Douglass between "facts" and "philosophy." The decisive error of Hammon's early life was his claim to too much freedom. Having endured uncommon sufferings as a result, he has learned better. He will disciple himself severely in the narrative, leaving all philosophy, all acts of interpretation to his betters. As William L. Andrews has observed, this is the first example of a black subject relinquishing all claim to the significance of his life. Because of his ‘‘very low’’ capacity, Hammon will be limited to mechanical recollection of ''Matters of Fact,'' leaving the moral and literary meaning of his life to be determined by others—of higher station.

Even without questioning how much of Hammon's narrative is edited or dictated, the intellectual hierarchy and division of labor is sufficiently clear. A white editor has determined that the bare incidents of an exciting Indian captivity will engage a white audience, who would not (needless to say) be concerned with Anglo-American captivity. Hammon's recollection of relevant facts will be given a proper context and a proper meaning by his audience. Hammon does seem to be left with a residue of freedom: to select from his memory the facts that are relevant and to order them as he wishes. But even that small exercise of selfhood is illusory.

Also published in Boston early in 1760 and in its third printing when Hammon's was printed was the captivity narrative of a young white man, Thomas Brown. The full title page of A Plain Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Remarkable Deliverance of Thomas Brown, names and dates aside, is virtually identical to Hammon's. So too is the narrative; its preface emphasizes age rather than status:

As I am but a Youth, I shall not make those Remarks on the Difficulties I have met with, or the kind Appearances of a good GOD for my Preservation, as one of riper Years might do; but shall leave that to the Reader as he goes long, and shall only beg his Prayers, that Mercies and Afflictions may be sanctified to me, and relate Matters of Fact as they occur to my Mind.

Brown's narrative was in all likelihood the immediate model for Hammon. If so, then the last vestige of Hammon's autonomy is exercised, for the facts of his story and their ordering are called up, not from the voluntary activity of his will, but from the involuntary pre-existence of a white model. The facts are the whole of his story. Neither Hammon nor Brown, it is true, is permitted to possess his own life story. One is disqualified by lowly status, the other by youth. Perhaps both are disqualified for reasons of class and education. Whatever the case, the...

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Biblical Allusion and Imagery in Frederick Douglass' Narrative

Frederick Douglass' Narrative, first published in 1845, has been described by a recent commentator as ''a consciously literary work, and one of the first order.’’ While I suspect that few readers would challenge this view, surprisingly few have sung the work's praises in the annals of literary criticism. Although pioneering discussions of Douglass' use of agrarian and animal imagery, nautical metaphors, ironic humour, and techniques which create verisimilitude have established a firm base upon which further studies may be built, there is one area of investigation in which the groundwork has yet to be laid. This is the whole subject of the role of religious language and Biblical allusion in the Narrative.


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