Compare Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the role of literacy.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Frederick Douglass's work is truly an autobiography that runs in chronological order, detailing the life of Douglass while Benjamin Franklin's autobiography digresses from the genre in two places: in the beginning, Franklin addresses a letter to his son William which contains fragments of memoirs, then becomes an autobiography; in the second part, Franklin breaks into a didactic on virtue and moral perfection. Finally, in the third part, Franklin again assumes the narrative of an autobiography. Nevertheless, both narratives contain philosophical and historical tracts.

Douglass's narrative is formulated into sequential chapters that chronicle his youth. Because his father is the owner of the plantation, Frederick is subjected to cruelty by his half-brothers and, as was the norm when slaves were the progeny of the master, he is sold off. In Chapter Five, Douglass arrives in Baltimore, Maryland, and meets his new mistress, Sophia Auld, who teaches him to read until her husband discovers this activity. But, although he is sent elsewhere, Douglass has learned enough to be able to teach himself later, as well as learn to write. He is eager to learn because he realizes that "illiteracy allows the white man to retain power over slaves." Further in his autobiography, Douglass teaches others to read and write.

After many tribulations, Douglass escapes to New York in 1838. There he discovers an abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator which he reads voraciously and educates himself from devouring what it reports; Douglass writes, "The paper became my meat and drink." From reading this paper, Douglass learned the vocabulary and phrasing of the abolitionists and developed his own skills at writing and speaking.

Certainly, Douglass's tragic youth finds reward in his freedom and self-improvement; likewise, Franklin runs off as a youth and eventually improves himself greatly. As in the life of Frederick Douglass, literacy plays an important role for Benjamin Franklin in his life. Although he lacks a depth of imagination and emotion, his literary talents are evinced in his predilection for reasoning and didactic, and in his humor. In his Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin offers advice that is sometimes light-hearted as, for example, "Fish and visitors smell in three days." But his seriousness about the importance of literacy is evinced in his affirmation of how much he learned from reading through his publications.  Franklin contributed to the spread of literacy in his establishment of the first public library in Philadelphia. 

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass describes his fight to attain literacy, which was disallowed for slaves. One of his masters, Sophia Auld, began to teach him the rudiments of reading, but she then discontinued this work when her husband scolded her and told her that literacy would make Douglass, then a boy, unfit to be a slave. At that point, Douglass understood that literacy was the key to his mental and physical freedom, and he enlisted local white boys into helping him to read. Eventually, his escape to the free North via the Underground Railroad was made easier because he was confident he could support himself as a literate person. Additionally, reading acquainted him with the arguments against slavery that gave him courage to escape its shackles. His autobiography, which is emotional and revealing of his innermost struggles, is the story of his freedom in part through gaining literacy.

To some degree, the story of Benjamin Franklin's early life is also the quest for greater knowledge. He was, as a white boy, allowed to learn to read, but his father took him out of school when he was ten to become apprenticed to a chandler, or candlemaker. Franklin's continued quest to read and to become more literate convinced his father to apprentice him to Franklin's brother, a printer, and Franklin gained more access to reading and books as a printer. Franklin shared Douglass' quest for literacy and knowledge, but Franklin's quest for learning did not have the urgency of that of Douglass. For Douglass, literacy meant an escape from slavery, while for Franklin, literacy meant knowledge and a better life. Franklin's narrative is also less emotional and revealing than that of Douglass and has a more pedantic tone. 

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