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...
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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,...
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In the mid-nineteenth century, when Douglass wrote the Narrative, the United States was becoming divided over the issue of slavery. In the North, a growing abolitionist movement that had started in the late eighteenth century began to gather momentum as its leaders made every effort to spread their antislavery message. They held meetings, gave lectures, published antislavery newspapers, and traveled across the country to spread their message. Meanwhile, in the South, slaveholders rigidly held on to their view that slaves were useful only as laborers that helped sustain their agricultural economy. White people, in both the North and the South, continued to treat slaves as inferior beings, in most cases denying them any legal protection.
However, as more slaves found their way to freedom in the North, either through the assistance of the Underground Railroad or their own inventive methods, they began to write of their experiences under slavery. These 'slave narratives' became popular as adventure stories and a kind of protest literature. Although slaves had written of their experiences since slavery's inception in the United States (in the late eighteenth century), their stories were not widely read until the 1830s when heated political debates over slavery became widespread. Moreover, the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 fanned the desire of many Americans for slavery to end.
Douglass' Narrative, published in...
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The lasting political, emotional, and dramatic power of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass stems not only from the highly controversial subject matter of slavery but also from Douglass' ability to utilize a number of literary and rhetorical devices that enable him to create a compelling and complex testimony to the horrific nature of slavery. One of Douglass' notable literary devices is his ability to render an engaging narrative plot in highly descriptive language. The descriptions include particular incidents, people, and moments in his life as a slave. His descriptions lend a particular credibility to his story by fostering graphic images and scenes that are difficult to forget. Once read, who can forget the image that Douglass invokes of the whipping of his Aunt Hester at the end of the first chapter? In fact, as scholar Jeffrey Steele argues in his article ''Douglass and Sentimental Rhetoric,’’ Douglass assumed that through these images his readers would ''identify with and feel the pain of those in bondage.’’ Readers are persuaded by his narrative that slavery is immoral and wrong.
The scholar Gregory Lampe, in Frederick Douglass: Freedom's Voice, 1818-1845, claims that Douglass was primarily an orator, one who argued against slavery through his use of narrative. ''As in his antislavery speeches, his autobiography went beyond simply narrating his slave experiences and exhorted his audience to act against the...
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Compare and Contrast
1840s: Douglass and other abolitionists campaign around the country to abolish slavery, speaking of its horrors and promoting the rights of African Americans to be granted legal and political representation.
Today: African Americans and other minority populations have legal protection and equal opportunities in all aspects of life, even though racial discrimination continues to occur.
1840s: Douglass is one of the first African-American public intellectuals to bring issues of race and inequality to the forefront of political life in the United States and works closely with presidents to achieve equal rights for African Americans.
Today: African Americans are represented in high political offices by newly elected Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice as well as in academic life by intellectuals such as Cornel West, Patricia Williams, and Henry Louis Gates.
1840s: A growing and increasingly literate American population devours popular literature such as slave narratives, adventure novels, and captive narratives.
Today: Popular literature continues to be read in the form of suspense, mystery, romance, and horror novels.
1840s: Douglass travels from state to state protesting the evils of slavery and continues to speak for African-American rights until he dies. Many of his speeches are recorded and distributed in...
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Topics for Further Study
In the 1840s, when Douglass wrote his antislavery narrative, the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum in both the United States and Great Britain. However, unlike today, communication methods were limited. Research the abolitionist movement of this time and discuss the communication methods that abolitionists used to spread the antislavery message.
At the same time that abolitionists were calling for the end of slavery, women in the United States were beginning to organize around equal rights. This First Wave of feminism was closely linked to the abolitionist movement. Research the relationship that the abolitionist movement had with First Wave feminism. How were their goals similar? Where did they part? How was Douglass involved in the First Wave feminist movement?
Since Douglass wrote his Narrative, many other African Americans have written autobiographies that use their own experiences to critique American society's marginalization of them. What other groups in the United States have used the genre of autobiography in this manner? When were these books written, and what was their mission?
Published in the 1960s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X had the same crossover appeal that Douglass' Narrative did in terms of attracting both African-American and white audiences. Read excerpts from the book and draw comparisons between the two books. For example, what themes do the two books address? How do they...
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Frederick Douglass, part of Biography Series, available from A & E Television Network, is a fifty-minute video exploring the life of Douglass, with critical comments from biographers, historians, and African-American scholars.
Frederick Douglass: 1818-1895: Abolitionist Editor, part of The Black Americans of Achievement Video Collection (1992), is a concise, comprehensive portrait of Douglass' major life accomplishments as a writer, editor, and abolitionist activist. Directed by Rhonda Fabian and Jerry Baber, the piece runs thirty minutes and is available from Schlessinger Video Productions.
Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History, a PBS video production, provides an extensive historical and cultural background to Douglass' life, from his life as a slave to his lifelong project to provide equal rights and protection to African Americans. It is directed by Orlando Bagwell, 1994.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an audiotape published by Recorded Books. Charles Turner reads the entire narrative, with a running time of four hours and thirty-one minutes.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (1964), is a stunning record of one man's ability to educate himself and fight for the rights of African Americans. It continues the tradition of African-American autobiography and the relationship of African-American protest literature to literacy issues.
The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, edited by William Andrews and published in 1996, provides a wide variety of later writings by Douglass that include impassioned speeches, excerpts from his later autobiographies, letters, and his novella The Lessons of the Hour.
Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, published in 1987 and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, depicts the horrors of slavery and its traumatic aftermath, even for those who think they have escaped its dehumanizing effects.
In her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, published in 1992, African-American scholar and writer Bell Hooks looks at how African Americans are represented in contemporary media and popular culture.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published in 1862, provides an interesting counterpoint to Douglass' Narrative. Written by a white abolitionist, the book became an instant success, selling over three hundred thousand copies during its first year. It details the injustices of slavery in the South, mostly via the character...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Andrews, William L., and William S. McFeely, eds., Preface, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, p. ix.
Castronovo, Russ, ''Framing the Slave Narrative / Framing the Discussion,’’ in Approaches to Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by James C. Hall, Modern Language Association, 1999, pp. 43, 47.
Fuller, Margaret, Review, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 83-85.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed., Introduction to The Classic Slave Narratives, Mentor Books, 1987, pp. x, xiii.
Lampe, Gregory P., Frederick Douglass: Freedom's Voice, 1818-1845, Michigan State University Press, 1998, pp. 269, 289.
McDowell, Deborah E., ‘‘In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition,’’ in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 178-179.
Miller, Keith, and Ruth Ellen Kocher, ‘‘Shattering Kidnapper's Heavenly Union: Interargumentation in Douglass's Oratory,'' in Approaches to Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick...
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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 Harriet Jacobs, in addition to that of Douglass, as well as an excellent short introduction to the form.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Offers a succinct and lucid biography for the general reader; Huggins is a good storyteller.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Presents a comprehensive biography with an excellent bibliography. McFeely is particularly good in describing Douglass’ relationship with family and friends.
O’Meally, Robert G. “Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative: The Text Was Meant to Be Preached.” In Afro-American Literature:...
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