What style of writing did Frederick Douglass use in his autobiography?
It is important, too, to acknowledge the structure of the narrative.
It begins with a preface, written by William Lloyd Garrison, a well-known Massachusetts abolitionist, publisher of The Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper, and a friend and associate of Douglass. In this preface, Garrison certifies that "Mr. Douglass has very properly chosen to write his own Narrative, in his own style, and according to the best of his ability, rather than to employ someone else." Thus, the reader has the certification of a white man that Douglass is, indeed, eloquent enough to tell his own story and that his story is the truth.
This preface is followed by a letter to Douglass from Wendell Phillips, Esq., another leading abolitionist of the time. While Garrison's words validate Douglass's ability to tell his own story, Phillips's letter validates Douglass's ability to narrate history. His voice, Phillips asserts, would be instrumental in wrenching narrative authority from the masters.
In telling his own story, Douglass employs a style that was also employed in other slave narratives. He begins by centralizing and personalizing his voice: "I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton in Talbot county, Maryland." This introduction seems insignificant, but the ability of a former slave—someone whose sense of place was conditioned on ownership and someone with no clear history—to name his birthplace gives him a sense of history. This is especially important because Douglass, like many slaves, did not know his age, but can only estimate that he is between "twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age" at the time that he writes this narrative.
Aside from his description of his age, the sentences that he uses to describe himself and his lineage are simple and declarative. He knows his mother's name and those of his grandparents. He also knows that his father was a white man. Douglass is very precise about details, such as the names of his relatives and members of the family that owned him. He is also very detailed regarding the privations of slaves, including the fact that children who did not work in the fields went "almost naked . . . at all seasons of the year." Notice that privations, too, are related to time.
He is also very linear in telling his story. It is not until chapter 9 that he notes "I have now reached a period of my life when I can give dates." By then, it is March 1832. However, prior to this, Douglass does his best to carry the reader through his life. Chapter headings begin with pivotal moments and sections of time: chapter 4 chronicles the succession of overseers, chapter 6 begins at the moment in which he meets his new mistress, and chapter 7 spans the seven years in which he lives with Master Hugh's family. Nearly every chapter begins with a date or a span of time.
Douglass used a simple, straightforward narrative style with a focus on the details of his life as a slave. Since this was a personal story meant to raise sympathy and support for blacks among a white audience (the vast majority of black slaves were illiterate, would not have had access to books, and already understood their own plight), Douglass wrote with a white audience in mind. He wanted to be factual but at the same time used emotional appeals to tug at the heartstrings of his readers. He wanted to humanize the slave as a person with the same feelings and desire for dignity that a white person might have. He speaks, for example, of sleeping beside his mother as a young child but how he never saw her by the light of day because of the long hours she worked. Douglass describes in detail the cruel whipping of a female slave and the shock the blood running down her back had on him as a young boy.
While not sparing his audience the horrors of slavery, his simple style of writing did not exaggerate them either. However, Douglass's white editors were worried about white people's reaction to his story and asked him to scale back his condemnations of Christianity in the south for tolerating slavery, which he did. While trying to be factual and honest, Douglass did have to be careful not to alienate his readers.
Douglass is confronted with a challenging task in writing his narrative. On one hand, he is driven by the need to represent his experiences in a manner that will prove compelling to a larger audience who have little idea as to what he endured. At the same time, he is driven by the social need to advocate abolitionism in a setting where there is not widespread acceptance of it. In this, Douglass recognizes that both ends could be met through the style in which his narrative is written. Douglass' style is one that is honest enough to bring forth the pain and moral repugnance towards slavery. Douglass uses the personalized account of his own life and experiences to make very clear why slavery is abhorrent and the need for its abolition from American society. This involves placing the reader in the middle of brutality, such as his aunt's whipping or the abuse that he suffered himself. In utilizing the first person narrative style, Douglass is able to convince the reader in fairly direct terms that slavery is wrong. In this process, Douglass is able to display to the reader that White slaveowners viewed slaves as animals or something not human, and employs animalistic imagery to bring this point to the reader, suggesting again the need to abolish slavery.