Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself Frederick Douglass
The following entry presents criticism of Douglass's autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). See also Frederick Douglass Criticism.
The Narrative is the most famous of the more than one hundred American slave narratives written prior to the Civil War.
Douglass, whose mother was a black slave and whose father was an unidentified white man, possibly his master, was born around 1817 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was separated from his mother in infancy and raised by his maternal grandmother on the estate of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony. His childhood was relatively happy until he was transferred to the plantation of Anthony's employer, Colonel Edward Lloyd. In 1825 Douglass was again transferred, this time to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, whose wife began teaching Douglass to read until Auld insisted that she stop. Douglass became convinced that literacy provided an important key to achieving his freedom and secretly began learning to read on his own.
In 1838, Douglass escaped to New York where he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. In the 1840s he began speaking publicly as a lecturer for William Lloyd Garrison's Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and wrote the Narrative, his account of his experiences as a slave, in response to those critics who doubted that such an eloquent orator had ever been in bondage. Concerned that he could be returned to captivity under the fugitive slave laws, Douglass traveled to England and Ireland, where he was well received by local social reformers. He returned to America in 1847 and bought his freedom from his former master.
In a break with Garrison and his abolitionist paper The Liberator, Douglass founded his own weekly paper, The North Star. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s he continued his work as a writer and speaker for the abolitionist movement, and in 1863 he served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln on the use of black soldiers in the war effort. After the Civil War, Douglass became involved in diplomatic work, including an assignment as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. He published two more versions of his life story, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). He died in 1895 at his home in Washington, D.C.
Plot and Major Characters
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a detailed, firsthand account of slave life and the process of self-discovery by which Douglass recognized the evils of slavery as an institution. Douglass began his story with his birth and immediately ran into a problem specific to the life of a slave. Although he knew where he was born, he had no exact knowledge of the date, a fact that set him apart from the white children of the plantation who knew their ages and could celebrate their birthdays. Slaves, according to Douglass, “know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” His awareness of his status as a slave and of the meaning of slavery as an institution was furthered when he witnessed his aunt being stripped to the waist and savagely beaten. One of the more famous episodes in the book involves Douglass overhearing his master, Hugh Auld, rebuking his wife for her desire to teach the slave to read and declaring that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass gleaned two valuable lessons from this experience. He first concluded that keeping slaves ignorant and illiterate was an important element in their subjugation, and resolved to teach himself to read. Second, by observing Mrs. Auld's transformation from a kindly woman with no previous experience as a slave-owner to a harsh mistress under her husband's tutelage, Douglass learned of the institution's effects on even well-intentioned whites.
Douglass's growing dissatisfaction with his condition led to the pivotal incident in which he was sent to Edward Covey, a notorious “slave-breaker,” to be disciplined. Initially reduced to little more than a brute by endless work, Douglass finally refused to submit to Covey's “discipline” any longer. The two engaged in a violent fight and Douglass, in the end, overcame his tormentor, resolving that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” From that point, Douglass was firmly on the road to freedom although it would take him some time before he was able to accomplish that feat. He avoided going into detail on the specific means of his escape, because to do so would “run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.”
One of the most prominent themes in the Narrative involves the association of literacy with freedom. The acquisition of the one precipitated the desire for the other, which was, for Douglass, a two-edged sword. He had occasional regrets about the knowledge that literacy afforded him because without the ability to change his status as slave, he was more miserable than ever. Nonetheless, Douglass's ability to tell his story in his own words firmly refuted the commonly held belief at the time that slaves were incapable of communicating through the standard conventions of American literature. Douglass not only displayed his facility with the dominant literary modes of his time, but he also incorporated folkloric elements from both black and white cultures into his text. Robert G. O'Meally points out that Douglass drew on the tradition of the African-American sermon, itself grounded in folklore, and that the Narrative was meant to be preached as well as read.
Douglass's ambivalent relationship to Christianity is another important theme of his story. The Narrative exposed the hypocrisy of individual Christians whose treatment of slaves was cruel and inhumane, and of organized Christianity as a whole which, with few exceptions, supported the institution of slavery and even claimed that it was sanctioned by God. Douglass believed that the more religious the master, the more cruel he would be, and claimed that “of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Douglass's harsh criticism of Christianity was tempered by his later writings, including the Appendix to the Narrative.
Of the many slave narratives produced in the nineteenth century, Douglass's has received the most critical attention and is widely regarded as the best. H. Bruce Franklin notes that “from Ephraim Peabody and William Wells Brown to the present, all students of the slave narrative have agreed that the masterpiece of the form is Frederick Douglass' first autobiography.” David W. Blight claims that “what sets Douglass's work apart in the genre … is that he interrogated the moral conscience of his readers, at the same time that he transplanted them into his story, as few other fugitive slave writers did.” But despite the Narrative's preeminent position within the slave narrative genre, until the 1970s it received little attention as a literary work, and was out of print from the 1850s until 1960. Franklin complains that the work has been neglected by literary historians and that Douglass, “one of the most important authors in nineteenth-century America, has remained a virtual nonentity outside the academic ghetto of Afro-American studies.”
In the years since Franklin's essay, however, the text has received increasing scrutiny from a wide variety of perspectives. Scholars have focused on Douglass's participation in various discourses, both black and white, including those associated with folklore and with Christianity. Kelly Rothenberg discusses Douglass's use of elements from black folklore that warn against the dangers of resistance to slavery, although he himself rejected the advice those tales offered and tried to escape despite the risks. A. James Wohlpart explores Douglass's double challenge: to the institution of slavery and also to the institution of the Christian Church that supported slavery. Douglass, claims Wohlpart, operated within the discourse of white Christianity at the same time that he subverted it. John Carlos Rowe examines Douglass's text in economic and political terms, claiming that the author was “clearly developing his own understanding of the complicity of Northern capitalism and Southern slave-holding in the 1845 Narrative.” Lisa Yun Lee also explores the politics of language in the text, noting that in the first half of the narrative Douglass is silent and powerless, but as he acquires the ability to speak within the dominant discourse, he becomes increasingly powerful and increasingly vocal. According to Lee, “the delineation between the experience of silent marginalization and speaking presence is so thoroughly presented that the binary nature of the two halves of the Narrative must be purposefully drawn.” Winifred Morgan has examined Douglass's narrative in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, claiming that there are basic gender-related differences between the two texts. According to Morgan, what distinguishes Douglass's story from Jacobs's and indeed from most other slave narratives, is the author's emphasis on his existence as an individual who achieved both literacy and freedom almost entirely on his own. Morgan believes that Douglass “sets up two contrasting frames: he presents himself as someone who is ‘one of a kind’ and at the same time ‘representative.’” Gwen Bergner discusses Douglass's narrative as a tale of masculine subject formation with parallels to the theory of the Oedipus complex established by Freud. Bergner examines Douglass's description of the whipping of his Aunt Hester whereby he became painfully aware of slavery as an institution. Bergner explains that “while psychoanalytic theory explains—by way of the Oedipus complex—how the subject apprehends sexual difference, Douglass's whipping scene demonstrates how an individual also learns racial difference.” Michael Bennett explores the link between anti-pastoralism and African-American literature and culture beginning with Douglass's narrative. According to Bennett, the usual terms of the city/country dichotomy were reversed in the Narrative because urban spaces offered a certain amount of freedom from the worst abuses of plantation slavery practiced in isolated rural areas. “For Douglass,” Bennett reports, “the city is not just relatively more free than the country, it is also a place that offers hope of the ultimate freedom: escape.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1845
Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852 (speech) 1852
The Heroic Slave (novella) 1853
The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered (speech) 1854
The Anti-Slavery Movement (speech) 1855
My Bondage and My Freedom (autobiography) 1855
Men of Color, to Arms! (essay) 1863
What the Black Man Wants (speech) 1865
John Brown (speech) 1881
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1881; revised edition, 1892
The Race Problem (speech) 1890
The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols. (letters, speeches, and essays) 1950-75
The Frederick Douglass Papers. 6 vols. (letters, speeches, autobiography, and essays) 1979-
(The entire section is 103 words.)
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SOURCE: Franklin, H. Bruce. “Animal Farm Unbound Or, What the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Reveals about American Literature.” New Letters 43, no. 3 (spring 1977): 25-46.
[In the following essay, Franklin explores animal imagery in the Narrative and the role of Douglass's story in refuting the commonly held belief, particularly in the South, that slaves were incapable of producing literature.]
Prior to the Black urban rebellions of 1964-1968, what the academic establishment defined as American literature included about as many Afro-American achievements as major-league baseball did before 1947. The subsequent token integration of our anthologies, curricula, and departments has not fundamentally altered the canon of American literary masterpieces, nor the criteria for choosing that canon and the critical methodologies applied to it. By and large, we are still acting as though American literature were a mere colonial implantation, no doubt modified by local conditions but in essence an offshoot of European literature.
But insofar as American literature is a unique body of creative work, what defines its identity most unequivocally is the historical and cultural experience of the Afro-American people. At long last we have come to understand that this is obviously true for American music and dance, and we are on the verge of recovering our...
(The entire section is 7728 words.)
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SOURCE: Stepto, Robert B. “Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control.” In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 45-57. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Stepto examines the Narrative's various appended documents and revisions, noting how these authenticating texts seem to set up a dialogue with the narrative itself.]
The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing, and above all, remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature of a slave narrative. This voice is striking not only because of what it relates but because the slave's acquisition of that voice is quite possibly his only permanent achievement once he escapes and casts himself upon a new and larger landscape. In their most elementary form, slave narratives are, however, full of other voices that are frequently just as responsible for articulating a narrative's tale and strategy. These other voices may be those of various “characters” in the “story,” but mainly they are those found in the appended documents written by slaveholders and abolitionists alike. These documents—and voices—may not always be smoothly integrated with the former slave's tale, but they are nevertheless parts of the narrative. Their primary function is, of course,...
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SOURCE: O'Meally, Robert G. “The Text Was Meant to Be Preached.” In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 77-94. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, O'Meally claims that, although the Narrative was meant to be read, it was also meant to be preached, drawing as it does on the tradition of the African-American sermon.]
Typically, scholars and teachers dealing with Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845) are concerned with the crucial issue of religion, because the tensions and ironies generated by the sustained contrast between white and black religions constitute a vital “unity” in the work. Slavery sends Old Master to the devil, while the slave's forthright struggle for freedom is a noble, saving quest. Douglass's search for identity—paralleling the search of many and varied American autobiographers before him—is tightly bound with his quest for freedom and for truth. The Narrative presents scholars and teachers with a variety of religious questions. How does Douglass reconcile his professed Christianity with his evidently pagan faith in Sandy Jenkins's root? Why does Christian Douglass condone (even applaud!) the slaves' constant “sinning” against (lying to, stealing from, even the threatened killing of) the upholders of slavery?...
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SOURCE: Gates, Henry-Louis, Jr. “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself.” In Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto, pp. 212-32. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979.
[In the following essay, Gates discusses the way in which Douglass's narrative participated in contemporary literary conventions by setting up such binary oppositions as black/white, slave/free, ignorance/knowledge, and nature/culture.]
I was not hunting for my liberty, but also hunting for my name.
—William Wells Brown, 1849
Whatever may be the ill or favored condition of the slave in the matter of mere personal treatment, it is the chattel relation that robs him of his manhood.
—James Pennington, 1849
When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea,—that conserves it; ideas only save races. If the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated. But if the black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization; for the sake of that element, no wrong nor strength...
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SOURCE: MacKethan, Lucinda H. “From Fugitive Slave to Man of Letters: The Conversion of Frederick Douglass.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 1 (winter 1986): 55-71.
[In the following essay, MacKethan explores Douglass's struggle to establish mastery over language and literature as a means of achieving full human and civil rights.]
To be an “American slave” was to be a man denied manhood in a country which defined men as beings endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to freedom. To be a “fugitive American slave” was to be a man seeking to claim title to the specifically American definition of man by finding a “territory” where that definition would legally apply. And to be a “fugitive American slave narrator” was to be a man seeking in a written document to prove that the free territory had successfully been appropriated through language, so that the American definition of man and the American concept of freedom could no longer be denied to himself or by logical extension to any other slave. Yet what the titles of the fugitive slave narratives enact and name is as much a drama of continuing denial as it is of successful appropriation. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; The Fugitive Blacksmith; Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave; and Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave...
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SOURCE: Burt, John. “Learning to Write: The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.” Western Humanities Review 42, no. 4 (winter 1988): 330-44.
[In the following essay, Burt characterizes Douglass's Narrative as a declaration of citizenship.]
Frederick Douglass claimed that he began to become free when he learned to write. Part of what he meant was that in writing he found the means to see himself as himself rather than as his masters saw him.1 But he also meant that writing enabled him to cross between two different kinds of identity and two different kinds of world. One of these kinds of identity I will call “selfhood,” an identity governed from within by need and desire and from without by force and fortune. The other I will call “citizenship,” an identity which gives law to itself in the form of duty and law to others in the form of rights. Only this latter kind of identity can enter into deliberation with other people and live in a truly public world. In learning to write, Douglass discovers the identity of the citizen, as opposed to that belonging merely to the self; in the three autobiographies he produced between 1845 and 1892, he fashions that public identity for himself and for others.
The first observation one must make about the Narrative of Frederick Douglass is that it is a romantic autobiography: in addition to serving the immediate...
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SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. “Faith, Doubt, and Apostasy: Evidence of Things Unseen in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 84-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Gibson discusses the appendix to Douglass's narrative as an attempt to conform to religious orthodoxy and to disguise the main text's hostility to Christianity.]
Strange order of things! Oh, Nature, where art thou. Are not these blacks thy children as well as we?
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur1
My Lord and Master, help me! My load is more than I can bear. God has hid himself from me and I am left in darkness and misery.
An Anonymous Slave Mother2
Jesus is dead and God has gone away.
The Souls of Black Folk3
Henry Bibb recounts in his Narrative of 1849 how he tried, time and time again, to rescue himself from slavery's bondage, and finally he succeeded.4 So frequently did he run away that he was often sold, and each owner concealed the fact from each successive owner. During one of many unsuccessful attempts, he underwent an...
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SOURCE: Rowe, John Carlos. “Between Politics and Poetics: Frederick Douglass and Postmodernity.” In Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies, edited by Günter H. Lenz, Hartmut Keil, and Sabine Bröck-Sallah, pp. 192-210. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1990.
[In the following essay, Rowe discusses Douglass's Narrative as an important text not just in the literary history of America, but also in the country's political and economic history.]
Douglass has subverted the terms of the code he was meant to mediate: He has been a trickster.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Frederick Douglass didn't even get a brief mention in the Spiller, Thorp, Johnson, Canby, and Ludwig Literary History of the United States of 1946. Although he figures centrally in Carolyn Porter's fine “Social Discourse and Nonfictional Prose” for the new Columbia Literary History of the United States, his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is celebrated principally as “the finest example” of the slave narrative. Porter does avoid the familiar tendency to contain black writing of the antebellum period within the tidy “genre” of the “slave narrative” by stressing the specific political interests of writings by Douglass, Lane, and Harriet Jacobs. In particular, she calls attention to...
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SOURCE: Lee, Lisa Yun. “The Politics of Language in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave.” MELUS 17, no. 2 (summer 1991-92): 51-59.
[In the following essay, Lee conducts a rhetorical analysis of Douglass's narrative as it progresses from the powerlessness of silence in the first half of the book to the power of speaking within the dominant discourse in the second half.]
In the Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass recounts his rise from a black slave to an abolitionist leader. Douglass's eloquent book gives testimony to the cruelty that he and other slaves suffered. Not only is Douglass's writing eloquent and moving, it is also carefully planned and sophisticated. One can see that while addressing the evils of slavery, Douglass also addresses the universal issues of powerlessness resulting from the “social appropriation of discourse” (as Foucault terms it). Douglass demonstrates the very relevant problem of exclusion and enslavement of marginal people(s) by a dominant system that privileges and cultivates certain discourses and values. The use of language as a power tool in slave society marginalizes and enslaves people who are outside of or prevented from learning the dominant language. This all amounts to the politics of language, a subtext revealed in Douglass's rhetorical use of silence.
Thus far, leading...
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SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self.” African American Review 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 591-603.
[In the following essay, Gibson examines Douglass's struggle to reconcile the existence of God with his own condition as a slave.]
“O God, save me! God, deliver me, Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave?”
(Douglass, Narrative 106-07)
“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”
The question of religious belief prompted by Douglass's impassioned utterance regarding the relation between the existence of God and his own status as a slave was not raised by him alone. Reverend Charles Colcock Jones, a white, Southern slave missionary, wrote in 1842, “He who carries the Gospel to them … discovers deism, skepticism, universalism … all such strong opinions about the truth of God; objections which he may perhaps have considered peculiar to the cultivated minds of critics and philosophers” (qtd. in Raboteau 176). Raboteau also reports the response of a recently freed black woman who was questioned about her religious belief: “It has been a terrible mystery to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people and keep...
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SOURCE: Hubbard, Dolan. “‘Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’: Reading the Narrative of Frederick Douglass.” In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, pp. 265-71. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Hubbard, an African-American university professor, describes his experiences reading and teaching Douglass's Narrative.]
Reading Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is liberating and exhilarating for me. On numerous occasions his words have lifted my spirits such as when I was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight as chair of the Faculty Senate at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State University, or when I felt worn down during the grind of a rigorous doctoral program as one of three African American students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or in those moments when I do a self-inventory regarding my position in the academy whose atmosphere, at times, can be lonely and indifferent. I use his narrative as a motivational tool to cope with the stress generated by questions such as: Do I belong? Can I do the work necessary for a productive and successful career? Can I handle the expectations of both community and academy? I draw sustenance from the achievements of this self taught man...
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SOURCE: Blight, David W. “Introduction: ‘A Psalm of Freedom.’” In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by David W. Blight, pp. 1-23. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.
[In the following introduction, Blight provides an overview of the composition and reception of Douglass's Narrative.]
Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical.
—Frederick Douglass, 1884
Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
Frederick Douglass was the most important African American leader and intellectual of the nineteenth century. He lived twenty years as a slave and nearly nine years as a fugitive slave; from the 1840s to his death in 1895, he attained international fame as an abolitionist, reformer, editor, orator, and the author of three autobiographies, which are classics of the slave narrative tradition. As a man of affairs, he began his abolitionist career two decades before America would divide and fight a tragic civil war over slavery. He lived to see black...
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SOURCE: Morgan, Winifred. “Gender-Related Difference in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.” American Studies 35, no. 2 (fall 1994): 73-94.
[In the following essay, Morgan compares Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and states that scholars have neglected gender-related distinctions between the two texts.]
Since the late 1960s, ante-bellum slave narratives have experienced a renaissance as dozens of the thousands still extant have been reprinted and as scholars have published major works on the sources, art, and development of the narratives; the people who produced them; and their on-going influence on later work. Drawing upon slave narratives as well among other sources, John Blassingame's The Slave Community (1972), for example, drew attention to the complex social interactions developed in antebellum slave culture. Examining the milieu that spawned the narratives and their development, and providing insights into what the narratives can tell about slavery as well as what they omit, Frances Smith Foster's Witnessing Slavery (1979) gave readers a book-length analysis of the genre. Robert B. Stepto's From Behind the Veil (1979) situated slave narratives at the center of African-American written narrative. John Sekora and Darwin Turner's collection of essays, The Art of the Slave...
(The entire section is 10307 words.)
SOURCE: Rothenberg, Kelly. “Frederick Douglass' Narrative and the Subtext of Folklore.” Griot 14, no. 1 (spring 1995): 48-53.
[In the following essay, Rothenberg examines Douglass's blending of black and white folkloric elements in the Narrative.]
Much has been written on Frederick Douglass and his triumphant escape from slavery. His prose work, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is considered to be a masterpiece of personal autobiography and documentation of the “peculiar institution” known as American slavery. Almost every article written about Douglass deals with the written text as Douglass presents it, either in terms of historical accuracy or as some form of reflection upon the events leading up to the Civil War. What does not get discussed is Douglass' unwritten text, the one that he does not consciously write but which is there nonetheless. Frederick Douglass' Narrative contains an unwritten text of folklore that the reader, and probably Douglass himself, may not be conscious of but which adds greatly to the strength of the narrative. The way to point out this unwritten text is to provide a background of the missing folk elements in his work (and the lessons they teach), and to show how Douglass incorporates them. In doing so, it can also be seen how Douglass rejects his own folk group in favor of the dominant White folk...
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SOURCE: Wohlpart, A. James. “Privatized Sentiment and the Institution of Christianity: Douglass's Ethical Stance in the Narrative.” American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 181-94.
[In the following essay, Wohlpart suggests that Douglass's relationship to Christianity is more complicated than many critics believe, suggesting that in the Narrative the author operates within accepted religious discourse while at the same time subverting it.]
In his “Introduction” to Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, published in 1991, William L. Andrews rightly concludes in relation to the 1845 version of Douglass's autobiography that the primary critical debate in the 1980s was whether or not the Narrative signifies “Douglass's mastery of literary discourse—or its mastery of him …” (10). Several positions have been staked out in relation to this question, the first of which, exhibited in the readings of Wilson J. Moses, Valerie Smith and Houston A. Baker, Jr., holds that the hegemonic (i.e., white, Protestant, abolitionist) discourse co-opts Douglass in his attempt to write his identity. Moses, attempting to unravel Douglass's motivations for using certain oratory and literary forms (including, primarily, confinement to black vernacular and the slave narrative), concludes that Douglass's “life as a literary creation was a market commodity,” forcing...
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SOURCE: Sisco, Lisa. “‘Writing in the Spaces Left’: Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass.” American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 195-227.
[In the following essay, Sisco discusses Douglass's ambivalent feelings towards literacy, and his struggle to find an acceptable narrative voice in his works. Sisco also examines Douglass's search for a new identity in post-Civil War America.]
In a vague, sentimental way, we love books inordinately, even though we do not know how to read them, for we know that books are the gateway to the forbidden world. Any black man who can read a book is a hero to us. And we are joyful when we hear a black man speak like a book. The people who say how the world is run, who have fires in winter, who wear warm clothes, who get enough to eat, are the people who make books speak to them.
—Richard Wright, Twelve Million Black Voices
Chapter VI of Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, opens with a scene of literacy instruction: the young Douglass is being taught to read by his mistress Sophia Auld, but he is interrupted by his master. Hugh Auld warns his wife that it is:
unlawful as well as unsafe to teach a slave to read … If...
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SOURCE: Bergner, Gwen. “Myths of the Masculine Subject: The Oedipus Complex and Douglass's 1845 Narrative.” Discourse 19, no. 2 (winter 1997): 53-71.
[In the following essay, Bergner draws parallels between the identity formation present in Douglass's Narrative and Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex.]
No pre-emancipation text by an African-American has enjoyed as much currency as Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Long considered the paradigm text of African-American slave identity, Douglass's Narrative was a forceful testament for the abolition movement and for African-American literary and historical consciousness. Douglass commandeered American myths of self-reliance and heroic rebellion to describe his escape from slavery; in this way, he extended symbolic citizenship to African-Americans (Andrews 166). His Narrative modeled “a coherent self which subsequent generations could use as a point of origin of written Afro-American discourse and subjectivity” (Cunningham 109). Deemed the “prototypical, premier example of the form,” Douglass's text has eclipsed other narratives and genres of slave writing (McDowell 192). Its representation of subjectivity has a transformative—even transferential—effect.
Critics generally have attributed the...
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SOURCE: Ferreira, Patricia J. “Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Dublin Edition of His Narrative.” New Hibernia Review 5, no. 1 (spring 2001): 53-67.
[In the following essay, Ferreira discusses how Douglass developed his position as a visionary and a leader during a six-month stay in Ireland.]
The year 1845 was pivotal for Frederick Douglass. With urging from friends in the Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, he published his autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although already recognized as the preeminent antislavery authority on the abolitionist lecture circuit, when Douglass issued his life story as a book, he gave his life a further measure of lasting influence. Without a doubt, publication further advanced Douglass's reputation as a formidable campaigner for African-American freedom. Despite such acclaim, however, his capacity to be a leader was hard won. In 1845 Douglass was also embroiled in circumstances aggravated by both proslavery and antislavery proponents that hampered his ability to move the United States in the direction he envisioned. Eventually, physical attacks by the public, unjust organizational practices of the Anti-Slavery Society, and fugitive slave laws, which instigated and codified prejudicial behavior and beliefs, necessitated Douglass's departure from the United States for Europe to continue his work for slavery's abolition. Douglass...
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SOURCE: Bennett, Michael. “Anti-Pastoralism, Frederick Douglass, and the Nature of Slavery.” In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, pp. 195-210. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
[In the following essay, Bennett discusses Douglass's Narrative as an antipastoral text that privileges the freedom associated with urban spaces over the rural areas linked to the worst abuses of plantation slavery.]
If we separate the term “ecocriticism” into its two components, its parameters seem clear: “criticism,” engaging in analytical reading practices, and “ecological,” focusing these practices on environmental concerns. In theory, then, ecocriticism could be applied to any cultural artifact since every cultural text issues from, and envisions, a particular relationship with its environment. In practice, however, ecocriticism has tended to focus on the genre of nature writing, a designation usually reserved for essays about the two environments most removed from human habitation: the pastoral and the wild. This narrowed focus of most ecocritics is reflected in Glen A. Love's summary of ecocriticism as a “new pastoralism” (210).
But of what use is ecocriticism if the culture under consideration has a different relationship with pastoral space and wilderness than the ideal kinship...
(The entire section is 5979 words.)
Anderson, Douglas. “The Textual Reproductions of Frederick Douglass.” Clio 27, no. 1 (fall 1997): 57-87.
Explores the literary and dramatic qualities of Douglass's various representations of self.
Crowley, John W. “Slaves to the Bottle: Gough's Autobiography and Douglass's Narrative.” In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, edited by David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 115-35. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Discusses common traits in John Bartholomew Gough's temperance narrative and Frederick Douglass's slave narrative, both of which appeared in 1845.
De Pietro, Thomas. “Vision and Revision in the Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass.” CLA Journal 26, no. 4 (June 1983): 384-96.
Examines the changes Douglass made in the various versions of his life story.
De Vita, Alexis Brooks. “Escaped Tricksters: Runaway Narratives as Trickster Tales.” Griot 17, no. 2 (fall 1998): 1-10.
Discusses the use of the trickster figure in various slave narratives including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Hall, James C., ed. Approaches to Teaching “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” New York: Modern Language Association of America,...
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