Form and Content (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
In 1841, three years after Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he launched his career as an abolitionist. In Nantucket, Massachusetts, he spoke for the first time about his slave experiences before a white audience. Before that, he had told his story only to black gatherings. So impressive was his account that he was hired as a full-time antislavery lecturer by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
By 1844, the society was becoming increasingly disturbed that many were doubting Douglass’s authenticity. His critics saw him as being too refined and too erudite for a man who had escaped from slavery only six years previously. The leaders of the Anti-Slavery Society, therefore, urged Douglass to write his story.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, including a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from Wendell Phillips, was published in 1845. Its success was immediate. Thousands of copies were sold both in the United States and in Great Britain. The Narrative was even translated into French and Dutch.
Just as there were those who doubted Douglass’s oral accounts of his experiences in slavery, there were those who declared the written version a hoax. Such an accusation was not as farfetched as it might at first seem. Many slave narratives were not only transcribed but also organized and revised by white abolitionists. The latter, however, were generally careful to indicate the extent of their assistance. They recognized that to do otherwise was to put the whole antislavery movement in jeopardy. The Narrative, for its part, is a notable exception. Frederick Douglass neither asked for nor received any help from white abolitionists.
The decision to divide the work into two main sections was his. The first part consists of nine chapters. These detail...
(The entire section is 763 words.)
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
After escaping from slavery, Frederick Bailey changed his name to Frederick Douglass and became a prominent speaker in the abolitionist movement. He was so eloquent that proslavery opponents charged him with being a fraud who had never been a slave and challenged him to reveal the true facts of his life. Such an account was dangerous for Douglass, who could have been captured and returned to slavery for life, but he proceeded to write in specific detail the account of his experience as a slave, in order to reveal the inhumanity of that “peculiar institution” and help bring about its overthrow. Prefaced with an essay by William Lloyd Garrison and with a letter by Wendell Phillips, both leading abolitionists, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself is told in straightforward chronology and a clear style, with a wealth of realistic detail.
Douglass’ father was a white man, rumored to be his master, and one of the abominations of slavery that Douglass denounced was the common practice of white men forcing slave women to be their mistresses and begetting children whom they never acknowledged, whom they owned and could flog or sell at whim. As an infant, Douglass was separated from his mother, whom he saw only a few times before she died. He had to endure the horror of seeing his aunt repeatedly flogged and to know that such a fate was in store for him. On a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass never had enough food, clothing, or shelter, and he had to sleep on the ground in an unheated...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Normal: University of Illinois Press, 1986. A comprehensive account of slave narratives, which includes an extensive interpretation of Douglass’ writings.
Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1892. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Douglass’ last autobiography, which covers his life story through his ambassadorship to Haiti.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987. Contains narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and...
(The entire section is 368 words.)