As the book’s subtitle implies, Graham aims from the outset to present a heroic portrait of a striking historical figure. Douglass’ story is inspiring in itself; Graham uses style, dramatic structure and language to heighten the inherent emotional impact. Throughout the book, the language is thick, florid, evocative, and poetic. There is extensive use of metaphor, and the lofty vocabulary of political revolution and moral purpose is prominent. By juxtaposing Douglass’ personal story with the larger history of the nation, Graham invests her subject with great dimension and power. The detachment of the narrative voice allows Douglass to appear larger than life and avoids the necessity of examining his failings and weaknesses. The tone is often breathless and exuberant when describing Douglass or his actions. Superlatives are abundant, and moments and objects are given symbolic power in order to magnify their importance. For example, the process by which Douglass chooses his name is enlarged into a metaphor for the attainment of identity.
Douglass is presented as a magical, magnetic, and charismatic figure who seems incapable of mistakes. All who come into contact with him during the course of his life have an immediate and intuitive response, recognizing his inner strength, beauty, and wisdom. In such moments, Douglass himself is not presented dynamically, and his power is communicated by the response that it elicits from others, even notable...
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In 1947, There Was Once a Slave was awarded the Julian Messner Award as the best book published that year for fighting racial intolerance. Among the six hundred manuscripts that were nominated, Graham’s was selected by the judges—including noted writers Carl Van Doren, Clifton Fadiman, and Lewis Gannett—for the $6,500 prize. The volume also was chosen as an offering of the Book Find Club.
The critical response, however, was not so positive. Many reviewers immediately chastised Graham for taking extreme liberties with fact and detail. Some found the interpolations of invented dialogue with authentic quotes confusing. The book was criticized for sentimentality, overembellishment, and outright hero worship.
The Chicago Sun reviewer considered the biography competent but believed that Graham failed to reflect Douglass’ vision and drive. The Commonweal reviewer, on the other hand, called the book a failure as biography but praised it as a concise history of the abolitionist movement. Among the harshest critiques was a piece in The Nation by James Baldwin who, at the age of twenty-three had not yet achieved fame as a prominent African-American novelist, essayist, and playwright. Baldwin refused to take Graham’s effort seriously as biography, and, in response to the Julian Messner Award, doubted that the book would have any effect in the war on intolerance. His review was caustic and sardonic, and he accused Graham of reducing a great and complex individual to an oversimplified, mass-market caricature.
There Was Once a Slave was the third in an impressive list of biographies of African-American and other political figures published by Graham. Other subjects include American actor Paul Robeson, Haitan leader Jean-Baptist Point du Sable, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tanzanian president Julius K. Nyerere, and Graham’s eventual husband, African-American writer and educator W. E. B. Du Bois.