Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Esther M. Douty’s biography Forten the Sailmaker: Pioneer Champion of Negro Rights not only depicts the growth of a young “person of color” (as Forten called himself) to a respected humanitarian, writer, and activist who helped to change the antislavery movement from African colonization to abolition but also chronicles the struggles of an emerging nation. Choosing to present Forten’s life as a full biography, Douty introduces him as a young child of eight in 1774, playing marbles beside the wharves of the Delaware River in Philadelphia while his father, a free man, works on sails in a nearby loft. A lively, inquisitive child, Forten even enjoyed sessions at the school of the Quaker Anthony Benezet.

When tragedy struck, however, Forten willingly assumed the role of a wage earner and became a chimney sweep. Later needing more money, he signed on with the continental navy as a powder boy, serving on the privateer Royal Louis. Selected events document Forten’s sense of pride in the new country that he served, as he chose imprisonment when captured rather than release on English soil. After the end of the revolutionary war, however, Forten did make a trip to England. Douty credits those months in Liverpool with creating in him an awareness of the horrors of slavery. Sickened by what he saw, he decided to return to Philadelphia; there, he apprenticed himself to a sail loft. Forten purchased that loft after a number of years of...

(The entire section is 443 words.)