Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself are landmark publications, yet they are not the earliest African American autobiographies. African American prose and more specifically, African American autobiography begin with A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammond, a Negro Man (1760). Hammond’s fourteen-page memoir is the first published slave narrative, and other slave narratives that predate Douglass’s three autobiographies include A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself (1772) and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). Frances Smith Foster, in Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (1979), states that the total number of slave narratives written or dictated in formats ranging from interviews of a single page to books is at least six thousand. However, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is considered the preeminent slave narrative and a classic in American literature. Douglass’s two additional autobiographies are expansions of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass’s autobiographical trilogy documents his journey from slavery to freedom. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass recounts his life from birth to his arrival in New Bedford in 1838 as a fugitive slave and a married man. My Bondage and My Freedom, published eight years after Douglass’s British friends purchased his freedom, reveals more details about his escape from Maryland and his activities as an abolitionist; Douglass, who also discusses his twenty-one-month stay in Great Britain, ends his second autobiography with his return to the United States and his founding of North Star. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass covers the same information contained in the first two autobiographies and highlights Douglass’s activities leading up to the Civil War, during the war, and after the war. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as Douglass states in chapter 10, shows how as a boy, he becomes a slave and how as a seventeen-year-old slave, he becomes a man. In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass becomes an abolitionist, and in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he becomes a statesman. Thus, in each autobiography, Douglass expands his persona. Douglass, as well as other slave narrators, were the first African American authors who seized the opportunities to write extended accounts of African American life. Prior to the slave narrators, most published prose images of African Americans were created by non-African Americans who usually portrayed African Americans in a false and unflattering manner. Douglass and his contemporaries were the first to offer self-definitions of the African American experience.
Douglass’s first-person narratives offer his accounts of slave life, yet the three autobiographies are more than his story; the subtitle of his first autobiography identifies him as an American slave. Thus, he writes for the multitude of enslaved men and women who were unable to write or tell their own stories. The subtitle is also Douglass’s audacious indictment: How could America, the land of the free, permit slavery to exist and thrive on its very shores? Each of Douglass’s autobiographies contains incidents of slaves who endured greater examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” than that which Douglass suffered.
The first chapter of each of Douglass’s autobiographies begins with a number of negative statements. He does not know his exact birth date. He does not know the identity of his father. He does not have many memories of his mother. He does not have any contact with his grandmother after 1824. Although each autobiography begins in uncertainty, Douglass ends each one on a triumphant note. He enjoys conditional freedom at the end of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he rejoices after his manumission at the end of My Bondage and My Freedom, and he takes pride in his life’s work at the end of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Throughout each work, Douglass employs objectivity. While he is quick to document the many injustices to slaves, Douglass also criticizes them. For example, they are victims of discrimination, yet some feel superior to their fellow slaves simply because their masters are wealthier and own more slaves. In addition to documenting slavery’s harmful effects on African Americans, Douglass describes how slavery hurts slave owners as well. The most memorable example is Sophia Auld, whose gentle disposition disappears after the arrival of Douglass, her first slave.
Although each autobiography’s emphasis on slavery is obvious, My Bondage and My Freedom as well as Life and Times of Frederick Douglass provide additional insight into nineteenth century African American life: They offer glimpses into black middle-class life, since the Douglasses resided in New Bedford, Rochester, and Washington, D.C.
Douglass wrote his first autobiography to document slavery’s horrors; critics have asserted that he wrote his third autobiography so people would not forget slavery’s injustices.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself
First published: 1881
Type of work: Autobiography
Douglass, born into slavery, gains his freedom and becomes one of America’s most dedicated abolitionists as well as the nineteenth century’s preeminent African American leader.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself documents the author’s life in the 1800’s, a century that includes Douglass’s birth in its second decade and his ascension to governmental appointments during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Douglass’s third autobiography is divided into three sections. Part 1, in the same manner as Douglass’s earlier autobiographies, focuses on the first twenty years of Douglass’s life as a slave in Maryland. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is an autobiographical Bildungsroman that is more than Douglass’s coming-of-age story; it is also an eloquent narrative of Douglass’s choosing to live his life as a free man instead of living his life as a slave owner’s chattel. Among the most memorable scenes in part 1 are five incidents prior to Douglass’s tenth birthday: his mother, whenever she could, walks twelve miles to visit the son separated from her by slavery and walks twelve miles back to the neighboring plantation before sunrise; his aunt Esther’s beating by her master because she had visited her beau; Demby, a slave who is frequently beaten by the overseer, is again whipped by him, yet Demby manages to break away, runs into the creek, refuses to come out of the water, and is shot to death; a slave girl who sleeps while her mistress’s baby cries is murdered by the irate mistress; and Douglass realizes education is the pathway from slavery to freedom after his master becomes enraged when he discovers his wife teaching young Douglass to read. The most significant incident in part 1 is Douglass’s self-empowerment after a two-hour battle with Covey, the infamous slave breaker; Douglass boldly announces that while society views him as a slave, he no longer considers himself one. Consequently, he plans his escape, and when it is unsuccessful, he remains obdurate as he plans another escape. Part 1 ends with Douglass fleeing slavery on September 3, 1838.
Part 2 begins with Douglass’s journey to freedom. As with Douglass’s years spent as a slave, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass divulges more details about Douglass’s career as an abolitionist than do Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom. Part 2 of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass highlights Douglass’s antislavery activities before and after his freedom is purchased. Among Douglass’s endeavors as an abolitionist recounted in the third autobiography are his oratories at antislavery rallies and conventions, a two-year lecture tour in England and Ireland, founding of North Star and Douglass’ Monthly, his association with other well-known African American and white abolitionists, and using his Rochester, New York, printing shop as a haven for fugitive slaves. Part 2 also reveals Douglass’s activities during the Civil War, including his recruitment of African American soldiers for the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Colored Regiments as well as Douglass’s meeting with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House on behalf of the African American troops. In part 2, Douglass mentions that his house was destroyed by fire, but arguably the most interesting event in this section is Douglass’s encounter with his former master’s granddaughter, who had read Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and freed all of her slaves when they became of age. Parts 2 and 3 highlight Douglass’s presidential appointments. Part 3 also details Douglass’s European tour. The final paragraph of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass finds Douglass summarizing his life, expressing his gratitude, believing that he did not accomplish great things, and stating that his life was not in vain.