Margaret Fuller (review date 1845)
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SOURCE: Review of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, edited by William L. Andrews, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 21-3.
[Fuller was a prominent American critic and a recognized feminist and transcendentalist. In the following review, originally published in 1845, she praises Douglass's Narrative, commenting on the importance of the "just and temperate" observations that it contains.]
Frederick Douglass has been for some time a prominent member of the Abolition party. He is said to be an excellent speaker—can speak from a thorough personal experience—and has upon the audience, beside, the influence of a strong character and uncommon talents. In the book before us he has put into the story of his life the thoughts, the feelings, and the adventures that have been so affecting through the living voice; nor are they less so from the printed page. He has had the courage to name the persons, times and places, thus exposing himself to obvious danger, and setting the seal on his deep convictions as to the religious need of speaking the whole truth. Considered merely as a narrative, we have never read one more simple, true, coherent, and warm with genuine feeling. It is an excellent piece of writing, and on that score to be prized as a specimen of the powers of the Black Race, which Prejudice persists in disputing. We prize highly all evidence of this kind, and it is becoming more abundant. The Cross of the Legion of Honor has just been conferred in France on Dumas and Soulie, both celebrated in the paths of light and literature. Dumas, whose father was a General in the French Army, is a Mulatto; Soulie, a Quadroon. He went from New Orleans, where, though to the eye a white man, yet as known to have African blood in his veins, he could never have enjoyed the privileges due to a human being. Leaving the Land of Freedom, he found himself free to develop the powers that God had given.
Two wise and candid thinkers,—the Scotchman, Kinment, prematurely lost to this country, of which he was so faithful and generous a student, and the late Dr. Channing,—both thought that the African Race had in them a peculiar element, which, if it could be assimilated with those imported among us from Europe would give to genius a development, and to the energies of character a balance and harmony beyond what has been seen heretofore in the history of the world. Such an element is indicated in their lowest estate by a talent for melody, a ready skill at imitation and adaptation, an almost indestructible elasticity of nature. It is to be remarked in the writings both of Soulie and Dumas, full of faults but glowing with plastic life and fertile in invention. The same torrid energy and saccharine fulness may be felt in the writings of this Douglass, though his life being one of action or resistance, was less favorable to SUCH powers than one of a more joyous flow might have been.
The book is prefaced by two communications—one from Garrison and one from Wendell Phillips. That from the former is in his usual over-emphatic style. His motives and his course have been noble and generous. We look upon him with high respect, but he has indulged in violent invective and denunciation till he has spoiled the temper of his mind. Like a man who has been in the habit of screaming himself hoarse to make the deaf better, he can no longer pitch his voice on a key agreeable to common ears. Mr. Phillips's remarks are equally decided, without this exaggeration in the tone. Douglass himself seems very just and temperate. We feel that his view, even of those who have injured him most, may be relied upon. He knows how to allow for motives and influences. Upon the subject of Religion, he speaks with great force, and not more than our own sympathies can respond to. The inconsistencies of Slaveholding professors of religion cry to Heaven. We are not disposed to detest, or refuse communion with them. Their blindness is but one form of that prevalent fallacy which substitutes a creed for a faith, a ritual for a life. We have seen too much of this system of atonement not to know that those who adopt it often began with good intentions, and are, at any rate, in their mistakes worthy of the deepest pity. But that is no reason why the truth should not be uttered, trumpet-tongued, about the thing. "Bring no more vain oblations": sermons must daily be preached anew on that text. Kings, five hundred years ago, built churches with the spoils of war; Clergymen to-day command Slaves to obey a Gospel which they will not allow them to read, and call themselves Christians amid the curses of their fellow men. The world ought to get on a little faster than that, if there be really any principle of movement in it. The Kingdom of Heaven may not at the beginning have dropped seed larger than a mustard seed, but even from that we had a right to expect a fuller growth than can be believed to exist, when we read such a book as this of Douglass. Unspeakably affecting is the fact that he never saw his mother at all by day light. "I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone."
The following extract presents a suitable answer to the background argument drawn by the defender of Slavery from the songs of the Slave, and it is also a good specimen of the powers of observation and manly heart of the writer. We wish that every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage—what a man may be subjected to the insults of spendthrift dandies, or the blows of mercenary brutes, in whom there is no whiteness except of the skin, no humanity except in the outward form, and of whom the Avenger will not fail yet to demand—"where is thy brother?"
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Frederick Douglass 1817(?)-1895
(Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) American lecturer, autobiographer, editor, essayist, and novella writer.
See also Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself Criticism.
Douglass is considered one of the most distinguished black writers in nineteenth-century American literature. Born into slavery, he escaped in 1838 and subsequently devoted his considerable rhetorical skills to the abolitionist movement. Expounding the theme of racial equality in stirring, invective-charged orations and newspaper editorials in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, he was recognized by his peers as an outstanding orator and the foremost black abolitionist of his era. Douglass's current reputation as a powerful and effective prose writer is based primarily on his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Regarded as one of the most compelling antislavery documents produced by a fugitive slave, the Narrative is also valued as an eloquent argument for human rights. As such, it has transcended its immediate historical milieu and is now regarded as a landmark in American autobiography.
The son of a black slave and an unidentified white man, Douglass was separated from his mother in infancy. Nurtured by his maternal grandmother on the Tuckahoe, Maryland estate of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony, he enjoyed a relatively happy childhood until he was pressed into service on the plantation of Anthony's employer, Colonel Edward Lloyd. There Douglass endured the rigors of slavery. In 1825, he was transferred to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, where Douglass earned his first critical insight into the slavery system. Overhearing Auld rebuke his wife for teaching him the rudiments of reading, Douglass deduced that ignorance perpetuated subjugation and decided that teaching himself to read could provide an avenue to freedom. Enlightened by his clandestine efforts at self-education, Douglass grew restive as his desire for freedom increased, and was eventually sent to be disciplined, or "broken," by Edward Covey. When he refused to submit to Covey's beatings and instead challenged him in a violent confrontation, Douglass overcame a significant psychological barrier to freedom. In 1838, he realized his long-cherished goal by escaping to New York. Once free, Douglass quickly became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. In 1841, he delivered his first public address—an extemporaneous speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket, Massachusetts—and was invited by William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionist leaders to work as a lecturer for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. By 1845, Douglass's eloquent and cogent oratory had led many to doubt that he was indeed a former slave. He responded by composing a detailed account of his slave life, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was an immediate popular success. Having opened himself to possible capture under the fugitive slave laws, Douglass fled that same year to Great Britain, where he was honored by the great reformers of the day. Returning to the United States in 1847, he received sufficient funds to purchase his freedom and establish The North Star, a weekly abolitionist newspaper. During the 1850s and early 1860s, Douglass continued his activities as a journalist, abolitionist speaker, and autobiographer. By the outbreak of the Civil War, he had emerged as a nationally-recognized spokesman for black Americans and, in 1863, advised President Abraham Lincoln on the use and treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army. His later years were chiefly devoted to political and diplomatic assignments, including a consulgeneralship to the Republic of Haiti, which he recounts in the 1892 revised edition of his final autobiographical work, the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. Douglass died at his home in Anacostia Heights, District of Columbia, in 1895.
In his speeches on abolition, Douglass frequently drew on his first-hand experience of slavery to evoke pathos in his audience. He is most often noted, however, for his skillful use of scorn and irony in denouncing the slave system and its abettors. One of the stock addresses in his abolitionist repertoire was a "slaveholders sermon" in which he sarcastically mimicked a pro-slavery minister's travesty of the biblical injunction to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." His most famous speech, an address delivered on July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, commonly referred to as the "Fourth of July Oration," is a heavily ironic reflection on the significance of Independence Day for slaves. The several installments of Douglass's autobiography—which include the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)—depart from the biting tone of his oratory and are often described as balanced and temperate, though still characterized by Douglass's dry, often ironic, wit. While these works are valued by historians as a detailed, credible account of slave life, the Narrative is widely acclaimed as an artfully compressed yet extraordinarily expressive story of self-discovery and self-liberation. In it Douglass records his personal reactions to bondage and degradation with straightforward realism and a skillful economy of words. He based his 1853 novella The Heroic Slave on the real-life slave revolt aboard the American ship Creole in 1841. Douglass's only work of fiction, it celebrates the bravery of Madison Washington, who is portrayed as a lonely and isolated hero.
Appealing variously to the political, sociological, and aesthetic interests of successive generations of critics, Douglass has maintained his celebrated reputation as an orator and prose writer. Douglass's contemporaries viewed him primarily as a talented antislavery agitator whose manifest abilities as a speaker and writer refuted the idea of black inferiority. This view persisted until the 1930s, when both Vernon Loggins and J. Saunders Redding called attention to the "intrinsic merit" of Douglass's writing and acknowledged him to be the most important figure in nineteenth-century black American literature. In the 1940s and 1950s, Alain Locke and Benjamin Quarles respectively pointed to the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and the Narrative as classic works which symbolize the black role of protest, struggle, and aspiration in American life. Critics in recent years have become far more exacting in their analysis of the specific narrative and rhetorical strategies that Douglass employed in the Narrative to establish a distinctly black identity, studying the work's tone, structure, and placement in American literary history. In addition, scholars have since elevated the reputation of the Narrative, while noting that the later installments of his autobiography fail to recapture the artistic vitality of their predecessor. Continued study and praise of the autobiographies and Douglass's other works may be taken as an indication of their abiding interest. As G. Thomas Couser has observed, Douglass was a remarkable man who lived in an exceptionally tumultuous period in American history. By recording the drama of his life and times in lucid prose, he provided works which will most likely continue to attract the notice of future generations of American literary critics and historians.
Ephraim Peabody (essay date 1849)
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SOURCE: "Narratives of Fugitive Slaves," in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, edited by William L. Andrews, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 24-7.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1849, Peabody favorably assesses Douglass's Narrative as among the most remarkable productions of the age, but observes that the author's mode of speech is prone to "violent and unqualified statements" that could "diminish his power as an advocate of the antislavery cause."]
America has the mournful honor of adding a new department to the literature of civilization,—the autobiographies of escaped slaves. . . . The subjects of two of these narratives, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson, we have known personally, and, apart from the internal evidence of truth which their stories afford, we have every reason to put confidence in them as men of veracity. The authors of the remaining accounts are, for anything we know to the contrary, equally trustworthy. We place these volumes without hesitation among the most remarkable productions of the age,—remarkable as being pictures of slavery by the slave, remarkable as disclosing under a new light the mixed elements of American civilization, and not less remarkable as a vivid exhibition of the force and working of the native love of freedom in the individual mind.
There are those who fear lest the elements of poetry and romance should fade out of the tame and monotonous social life of modern times. There is no danger of it while there are any slaves left to seek for freedom, and to tell the story of their efforts to obtain it. There is that in the lives of men who have sufficient force of mind and heart to enable them to struggle up from hopeless bondage to the position of freemen, beside which the ordinary characters of romance are dull and tame. They encounter a whole Iliad of woes, not in plundering and enslaving others, but in recovering for themselves those rights of which they have been deprived from birth. Or if the Iliad should be thought not to present a parallel case, we know not where one who wished to write a modern Odyssey could find a better subject than in the adventures of a fugitive slave. What a combination of qualities and deeds and sufferings most fitted to attract human sympathy in each particular case! . . .
These biographies of fugitive slaves are calculated to exert a very wide influence on public opinion. We have always been familiar with slavery, as seen from the side of the master. These narratives show how it looks as seen from the side of the slave. They contain the victim's account of the working of this great institution. When one escapes from the South, and finds an opportunity of speaking and has the power to speak, it is certain that he will have attentive listeners. Not only curiosity, but a sense of justice, predisposes men to hear the testimony given by those who have suffered, and who have had few among their own number to describe their sufferings. The extent of the influence such lives must exert may be judged of, when we learn the immense circulation which has been secured for them. Of Brown's Narrative [Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself], first published in 1847, not less than eight thousand copies have been already sold. Douglass's Life, first published in 1845, has in this country alone passed through seven editions, and is, we are told, now out of print. They are scattered over the whole of the North, and all theoretical arguments for or against slavery are feeble, compared with these accounts by living men of what they personally endured when under its dominion. . . .
The narrative of Douglass contains the life of a superior man. Since his escape from slavery, he has been employed as an antislavery lecturer, and is now the editor of a newspaper in Rochester, N.Y. He does not belong to the class, always small, of those who bring to light great principles, or who originate new methods of carrying them out. He has, however, the vividness of sensibility and of thought which we are accustomed to associate with a Southern climate. He has a natural and ready eloquence, a delicacy of taste, a quick perception of proprieties, a quick apprehension of ideas, and a felicity of expression, which are possessed by few among the more cultivated, and which are surprising when we consider that it is but a few years since he was a slave. In any popular assembly met for the discussion of subjects with which he has had the opportunity to become familiar, he is man to command and hold attention. He is a natural orator, and his original endowments and the peculiarity of his position have given him a high place among antislavery speakers.
But while our sympathies go strongly with him, and because they go with him, we are disposed to make a criticism on a mode of address in which he sometimes indulges himself, which we believe is likely to diminish, not only his usefulness, but his real influence. We would not detract from his merits, and we can easily excuse in him a severity of judgment and a one-sidedness of view which might be inexcusable in another. We can hardly condemn one who has been a slave for seeing only the evils of slavery, and for thinking lightly of the difficulty of remedying them; but we have wished, when we have heard him speak, or read what he has written, that he might wholly avoid a fault from which a natural magnanimity does something towards saving him, but to which he is nevertheless exposed. His associates at the North have been among those who are apt to mistake violence and extravagance of expression and denunciation for eloquence;—men who, whatever their virtues otherwise, are not in the habit of using discrimination to their judgments of men or of measures which they do not approve. To him they have doubtless been true and faithful friends, and he naturally adopts their style of speech. But it is a mistaken one, if the speaker wishes to sway the judgment of his hearers and to accomplish any practical end. No matter what the vehemence of tone or expression, whenever a public speaker indulges himself in violent and unqualified statements and in sweeping denunciations, he not only makes it apparent that he is deficient in a sound and fair judgment, but what is worse, he creates in his hearers a secret distrust of his real earnestness,—a vague feeling that after all he is thinking more of his speech than of the end for which he professes to make it. When men are profoundly in earnest, they are not apt to be extravagant. The more earnest, the more rigidly true. A merchant, in discussing the politics of the day, about which he knows or cares little, freely indulges in loose, extravagant, and violent declarations. But follow him to his counting-room; let him be making inquiries or giving directions about some enterprise which he really has deeply at heart, and the extravagance is gone. Nothing will answer here but truth, and the exact truth. His earnestness makes him calm. It is seen in the moderated accuracy, as well as in the decision and strength, of his statements. Extravagance and passion and rhetorical flourishes might do when nothing which he greatly valued was at stake; but here is something too serious for trifling. Just so it is in other cases. A flippant, extravagant speaker, especially if he be gifted with the power of sarcasm, will probably be listened to and applauded, but nothing comes of it. They who applaud the most understand very well that this is not the kind of person whose judgment is to be relied on as a guide in action. His words are listened to with much the same sort of interest that is given to the personated passion of the theatre. A few sober words from a calm, wise, discriminating mind are, after all, the ones which are followed. Nothing is less effective, for any practical end, than the "withering and scorching" eloquence with which American speeches seem so to abound. It conciliates no opponent, and though it may light up the momentary passions, it gives no new strength of conviction to the friends of a cause. It is the last kind of eloquence to be cultivated by those who are heartily in earnest in their desire to promote any great reform.
We by no means think that these remarks apply peculiarly to Douglass. We make them, however, because we think that, more often than he is probably aware, he suffers himself to fall into this mode of speech. He has such ability to appeal to the higher and more generous sentiments, and such appeals do so much to win over enemies and to strengthen friends, he has such personal knowledge of slavery, and is so competent to make all he says effective, through candor and a just appreciation of the difficulties that beset the subject of emancipation, and is withal so much of a man, that we regret any mistake of judgment which tends to diminish his power as an advocate of the antislavery cause. . . .
There are many passages in the narrative of Douglass which we should be pleased to quote, but it has been so long published and so widely circulated, that many of our readers have probably seen it. We would only say, in conclusion, that we feel a deep interest in his career. He is one of the living evidences that there is in the colored population of the South no natural incapacity for the enjoyment of freedom; and he occupies a position and possesses abilities which enable him, if he pursues a wise course, to be a most useful laborer in the cause of human rights.
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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1845
Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852 (speech) 1852
The Heroic Slave (novella) 1853
The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered (speech) 1854
The Anti-Slavery Movement (speech) 1855
My Bondage and My Freedom (autobiography) 1855
Men of Color, to Arms! (essay) 1863
What the Black Man Wants (speech) 1865
John Brown (speech) 1881
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1881; revised edition, 1892
The Race Problem (speech) 1890
The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols. (letters, speeches, and essays) 1950-75
The Frederick Douglass Papers. 2 vols. (speeches and debates) 1979-82
Benjamin Quarles (essay date 1948)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4945
SOURCE: "Trials of an Editor," in Frederick Douglass, The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1948, pp. 80-98.
[Quarles is regarded as a leading Douglass scholar among American historians. In the following essay, he describes Douglass's journalistic exploits as the publisher of an antislavery weekly newspaper in the late 1840s and 1850s.]
I think the course to be pursued by the colored Press is to say less about race and claims to race recognition, and more about the principles of justice, liberty, and patriotism.
Negro journalism was an outgrowth of the Negro's desire for fuller participation in American life. Significantly, the first of the Negro periodicals was entitled Freedom's Journal, published in New York in 1827. Douglass' venture into the field, therefore, was not a pioneer undertaking; his periodical was but one of the seventeen newspapers published by Negroes prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1847, when Douglass decided to issue a weekly, there were then in existence four journals edited by Negroes.
Douglass, it will be remembered, returned from England with the determination to start an anti-slavery paper. The English friends to whom he mentioned the plan had raised a fund of $2,175 as a testimonial of their affection. For a few months Douglass had heeded the negative advice of Garrison and Phillips, but toward the close of September 1847, he presented, through the columns of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, a prospectus of the new paper. It aimed to become "a terror to evil-doers." Douglass proposed, so ran the preliminary statement, to publish a weekly that would "attack slavery in all its forms and aspects—advocate Universal Emancipation—exalt the standard of public morality—promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the Coloured people—and hasten the day of Freedom to the three millions of our enslaved countrymen."
On December 3, ten weeks after the introductory announcement, the first issue of the paper appeared. Published in the basement of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was named The North Star. A paper by that title had been published in Danville, Vermont, since 1806. While in England, Douglass must have become acquainted with the Chartist sheet, The Northern Star. Doubtless Douglass was familiar with the lines of a song attributed to runaway slaves:
I kept my eye on the bright north star,
And thought of liberty.
Douglass was well satisfied with the title. "Of all the stars in this 'brave, old, overhanging sky,' The North Star is our choice. To thousands now free in the British dominions it has been the Star of Freedom. To millions, now in our boasted land of liberty, it is the Star of Hope." Prospective readers were informed that the subscription rates were $2 a year, always, optimistically ran the notice, in advance.
The editors were Douglass and Martin R. Delany. The latter brought to the joint editorship a journalistic experience acquired on the Pittsburgh Mystery, a Negro paper. It was agreed that Douglass was to remain in Rochester and edit, and Delany was to travel and raise subscriptions. William C. Nell, a self-taught Negro follower of Garrison, was listed as publisher. The first issue of the periodical reported the proceedings of the National Convention of Colored Americans, held at Troy during the first week of October. The other most lengthy inclusion was a long letter to Henry Clay, ostensibly exposing his folly on the subject of colonization.
Despite their disappointment, the Garrisonians mustered up the good grace to say a word of godspeed. The Standard and the Liberator greeted the newcomer cordially. The latter, in a puff to Douglass, proclaimed that his facility in adapting himself to his new duties "is another proof of his genius and is worthy of especial praise." The paper itself, ran a somewhat oblique compliment, "surpasses that of any other ever published by a colored man." Other former friends in Massachusetts were verbally happy over the new arrival. At the yearly anti-slavery bazaar in Boston, Mrs. Maria W. Chapman hung a subscription list for the North Star.
The reaction of the people of Rochester was mixed. Doubtless a few felt like acting on the suggestion of the New York Herald that the editor should be exiled to Canada, and his equipment thrown into the lake. Many felt that an abolitionist sheet edited by a Negro was a community disgrace, to be carried with resignation, as a cross. But local hostility was feeble and of short duration. It was weakened by the attitude of the printers' association which welcomed the paper to Rochester. One month after the publication of the paper, the printers and publishers of the city, with only one dissenting member, invited Douglass and Nell to an anniversary celebration of Franklin's birthday. At the gathering the assembled newspapermen greeted the Negroes warmly. In response to a toast of cordial welcome, Douglass adverted to the uniformly kind treatment he had received from the local press and citizenry.
Doubtless the favorable reaction of the printers was an instance of economic motivation. Douglass was expected to attract money to the city, and he did. In his sixteen years in the newspaper business at Rochester, Douglass, according to his own estimate, "paid out to white men in the city little less than $100,000."
Douglass was proud of his printing establishment, which was the first ever owned by a Negro in the United States. His press, types and other printing materials cost between nine and ten hundred dollars, and were, boasted their possessor, "the best that can be obtained in this country." The office, however, was a modest single room. Cases of type occupied the entire wall space, except for Douglass' desk. Douglass' children and a white apprentice set the type and locked the forms. After the edition was printed the young workers folded, single-wrapped and mailed the copies to subscribers and exchanges.
The anti-slavery paper which issued from Rochester from 1847 to 1863 was to an unusual degree the prod-product of one man's thinking. Aside from its fitful flirtation with the Liberty party, Douglass' publication was his personal organ. The early issues of the North Star were published under a joint editorship, but Delany, a man of diverse and multiple interests, spent no time at Rochester. His failure to raise funds for the paper doubtless led to a dissolution of the dual editorship after a six months' trial. After June 1848, the paper was under Douglass' exclusive control. Nell stayed two years longer, but, as a Garrisonian, his position became untenable when Douglass began to espouse the cause of the Liberty party through the columns of the weekly.
The intimate relationship between the editor and his publication is indicated by the name of the journal for the greater part of its existence. In June 1851, the editor changed the name of the weekly to Frederick Douglass' Paper. His alleged reason was to distinguish his periodical from others with "stars" in their titles. Doubtless Douglass also believed that sales resistance would weaken to the magic of his name. In 1853 Garrison, then estranged from Douglass, twitted him on the name of his weekly. Perhaps stung by this criticism Douglass considered other titles. He wrote to Gerrit Smith of possible designations. He thought The Black Man "good but common"; The Agitator was "good but promises too much"; he liked The Brotherhood, but "it implied the exclusion of the sisterhood"; The Jerry Level he liked best of all. But he never got around to making the change.
Douglass was not a path-maker in journalistic originality. In make-up and typography he modelled his paper after the Liberator, the Bugle, the Pennsylvania Freeman and the Standard. Like these abolitionist sheets, the North Star and Frederick Douglass' Paper consisted of four pages of six columns each. Their content was also standard abolitionist fare. This included presidential messages, which Douglass published because of their intrinsic interest rather than his agreement with their import. Front page position was also given to anti-slavery speeches in Congress; regardless of length Douglass published in full the attacks on slavery by Henry Wilson, Charles Sumner and Gerrit Smith. A voting abolitionist after 1850, Douglass filled hundreds of columns with the endless debates on the nature of the Constitution and the efficacy of political action. Douglass' weekly welcomed sermons by Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Parker, each of whom could be relied upon to ally Divinity on the proper side of the slavery question.
Douglass carried full accounts of local and state-wide anti-slavery meetings. Reports from abolitionist societies, generally in the form of letters from the corresponding secretaries, consisted of speeches delivered, resolutions adopted and a statement on the size of the audience and its reaction to the anti-slavery message.
Many of the correspondents wrote from a consistently hopeful viewpoint in order to bolster the morale of the faithful. These reports, therefore, were wistfully optimistic except those from Douglass himself, whose pen was realistic rather than sanguine and whose powers of self-deception were small.
As was customary in the abolitionist press, Douglass' weekly lifted and reprinted items from other reformist sheets. However, it had its own regular contributors who sent in reports of happenings in their home towns. Among this all-Negro staff of unpaid local correspondents was J. McCune Smith who each week, under the pseudonym "Communipaw," wrote a breezy, informative letter from New York City. Holder of three degrees from the University of Glasgow, Smith found time for civic affairs despite a large medical practice. William J. Wilson, another local reporter, signed "Ethiope" to his clever, running accounts of the Brooklyn scene. Samuel Ringgold Ward, safe in Canada from the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law, sent letters written in a vigorous prose style. Ward, whose complexion was "considerably darker than that of Othello, in the Dusseldorf Gallery," had been a Congregational pastor and a staunch supporter of the Liberty party. Until he clashed with Douglass, William Wells Brown dispatched well-written communications from his travels on the anti-slavery circuit. Another frequent contributor was William G. Allen, whose marriage to one of his white students at Central College created a local uproar at McGrawville, New York. Prior to his teaching appointment at Central College, Allen had edited the National Watchman, a reformist sheet published at Troy, New York, from 1842 to 1847. Other correspondents to Douglass' weekly included Loguen from Syracuse, George T. Downing and Delany.
Without exception, these Negroes wrote well. Douglass set a high standard—even a typographical error was rarely found in his journal. He would tolerate no grammatical gaucheries. Contributors polished their sentences for his paper. Perhaps many of the correspondents paraded their learning too ostensibly. Some of the communications were interlarded with Latin phrases and classical allusions, doubtless in a conscious attempt to refute the charges of scanty book-training and mental inferiority.
Outside of political events and other occurrences which lent themselves to the propaganda of agitation, Douglass' publication carried almost no current news. Strictly speaking, Douglass' periodical was not a newspaper; but for its large size and weekly appearance, it might have been termed a magazine. Douglass' Monthly, issued during the twilight of Douglass' journalistic career, in make-up and size was actually a magazine.
Douglass carried verse. Most of the poems sent in were sentimental or eulogistic. Commonplace in imagery and deficient in literary finish, "anti-slavery verse is proof that by indignation alone one cannot storm Parnassus." Aside from the writings of such figures as Whittier and Lowell, abolitionist verse was rhymed prose—verse perhaps, but not poetry. Their composers, of course, did not write for so much a line. Their rewards were a satisfied conscience and a letter from the editor. A typical recipient of such remuneration was Anne P. Adams who "received a beautiful letter yesterday from Frederick thanking her very kindly for her contributions and regretting his inability to render more substantial evidence of his appreciation of her productions."
Occasionally Douglass reprinted portions of The Bigelow Papers or some of Whittier's moving anti-slavery verse. Other purely literary material included the serial publication of a standard novel, generally located on page four, as a sort of filler. One subscriber informed the editor that she read everything except Bleak House and the advertisements. The latter were pill medicine encomiums and prosaically-worded publication announcements of anti-slavery tracts and tomes. The book reviews ("literary notices") were handled by Julia Griffiths, an Englishwoman, who for many years was Douglass' closest associate and most intimate friend. Miss Griffiths had met Douglass at Newcastle-on-Tyne. In 1848, she had come to Rochester where for a time she resided in the Douglass home. She had a flair for journalism. Douglass' tribute was heartfelt: "Think what editing a paper was to me before Miss Griffiths came!"
Douglass owed much of his literary precision to Miss Griffiths' careful blue-pencilling. She taught him the rules of grammar that he had hitherto observed simply by an inherent sensitiveness to language forms. Editorials from his pen revealed a style that was uniformly virile and sonorous. Douglass had a feeling for words and a gift of vivid phrases. He was indebted to Whittier for his anti-slavery vocabulary; his other literary gifts came from a wide and careful reading in the innumerable sets of books his friends sent him.
It was largely due to Miss Griffiths' efforts that Douglass was able to issue a periodical for sixteen years. A reform paper is beset by chronic financial difficulties. Many of the ante-bellum Negro periodicals disappeared after two or three numbers; others struggled along for two or three years before suspending publication. Douglass' paper survived only by heroic measures.
Due to the generosity of his friends abroad, Douglass began his undertaking debt-free, but he had to depend on his own efforts to meet publication expenses. In 1848, these were $55 a week. Before three issues had been published Douglass was complaining about the discouraging number of cash subscriptions. Douglass had been forced to raise money by giving lectures, he wrote his associate, "in order to keep our heads above water." Four months later the situation had become critical. The North Star of May 5, 1848, printed an urgent appeal for "pecuniary aid." The editor informed his public that the number of subscribers was so small that he had been compelled to mortgage his house, and as a result was "heavily in debt." A year after this initial appeal the paper was still $200 in debt. Nell took charge at the printing office while Douglass went out lecturing and soliciting subscriptions.
The chief difficulty, in Douglass' opinion, was the "very long list of non-paying and the very short list of paying subscribers." Douglass discovered an "amazing disparity between the disposition to read and the disposition to pay." As if to overrun the editor's cup, many of those who paid did not remit in sound currency. Douglass soon learned that out-of-state bills, even when drawn on solvent banks, had to be discounted at a loss of from five to twelve per cent. Douglass warned that he would accept only "New York money," and would "decline to receive" Western and Southern bills.
Douglass found convenient reasons for the paper's limited mailing list. In May 1848, the North Star had fewer than thirty subscribers in Massachusetts. To Douglass this was proof that the Garrisonians would not support the paper because its editor would not denounce all abolitionists who were not moral suasionists. On the other hand, the Liberty party people, remembering Douglass' antecedents, regarded the weekly as strongly Garrisonian, and hence withheld their support.
But more grievous to Douglass than the lack of either abolitionist or political support in these early years was the attitude of the colored people. Negroes did not respond as he expected. In May 1848, the North Star had five white subscribers to every Negro subscriber, even though many white friends felt that a Negro paper should be supported primarily by Negroes. On the other hand, Negroes, so concluded Douglass, thought that a colored man's paper ought to be supported by white people, and that Negroes "ought to have copies out of compliment." This apparently parasitical point of view held by some Negroes, combined with the indifference of others, provoked a display of Douglass' ire. "Tell them," he wrote editorially, "that a well conducted press in the hands of colored men is essential to the progress and elevation of the colored man, and they will regard you as one merely seeking a living at public expense, 'to get along without work.'"
The editor's indignation prevented him from making objective analysis. With the exception of the Liberator, Negroes gave little support to any of the abolitionist sheets. The majority of Negroes were too poor to subscribe to any paper. Then, as now, the Negro reading public believed in spending its money for what seems best and cheapest. Furthermore, odd as it might seem to Negro militants, many colored persons prided themselves on their lack of race consciousness and refused to identify themselves with a cause which they regarded as primarily racial. Perhaps less than twenty per cent of the Negroes in the United States were abolitionists. The Negroes in America were not a homogeneous group with common interests. Having no culture peculiar to a black skin, the transplanted Africans had become a congeries of groups with diverse interests that reflected a typically American individualism. Neither Douglass nor any other Negro leader of his day could assume the role of official spokesman for more than a small fraction of a race whose interests and outlooks were as varied and contradictory as the cross-currents of their adopted civilization.
Douglass' journalistic financial strain was eased somewhat by his conversion to the doctrines of political abolitionism. Early in 1851 he and Gerrit Smith decided to unite the Liberty Party Paper with the North Star. According to their agreement, Douglass was to assume the editorship of the new publication which would then have a subscription list from two sources. Smith promised to take over the debts of the North Star and make a monthly donation to the support of the new party organ. The new arrangement satisfied everyone except John Thomas, retiring editor of the Liberty Party Paper, who was demoted from the office to the shop.
The union of the two papers went through as planned. The first issue of the new weekly, now named Frederick Douglass' Paper, appeared on June 26, 1851. Essentially it was a continuation of the North Star with the addition of sporadic news of Liberty party activities. The immediate effect of the merger was favorable. For two years the paper managed to steer clear of financial shoals, due largely to Smith's generosity. In 1852 he contributed $1200. But after 1853 financial difficulties multiplied. The extremely low fortunes of the Liberty party after 1852 led Smith to decrease his donations. By 1856 the sheet was $1500 in debt and Douglass in desperation proposed to unite it with the Radical Abolitionist.
More important in the life of the paper than the temporary aid given by the Liberty party was the endless exertion of Miss Griffiths. With a business perception rare in the cloistered woman of the period, she devoted her time exclusively to the interests of the paper for nearly eight years. Without her effective and energetic management the paper would have been another short-lived abolitionist sheet. More interested in the economics of abolitionism than in its propaganda, she took over the control of the finances of the North Star in the summer of 1848. She immediately divorced Douglass' personal finances from those of the paper. Within three years Douglass paid the mortgage on his home and, despite the fluctuating fortunes of the weekly, steadily increased his private savings.
Occasionally an out-of-state organization sent a donation. As a result of an anti-slavery bazaar held during Christmas week of 1848, "The Colored Ladies in Philadelphia" raised $100 for the paper. Another fair for the North Star was held in the same city six months later. For the most part, however, projects for financial aid had their origin in Miss Griffiths' resourceful mind. Direct appeal was one method. Late in 1853, she proposed to raise $ 1,000, in $ 10 gifts, toward a contingent fund for the paper. To friends of the cause she sent soliciting letters. By January 1854, she was able to report a collection of $420. Among the forty-two donors were Gerrit Smith, Charles Sumner, Horace Greeley, William Jay, Henry Ward Beecher, Salmon P. Chase, Horace Mann, Cassius Clay and the Tappan brothers.
Another money-raising device was the holding of an anti-slavery bazaar or fair. Following Boston precedent, Miss Griffiths organized the women. She became permanent secretary of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. Conducting the annual anti-slavery bazaar was the chief activity of the group. Friends and well-wishers, particularly in the British Isles, were urged to send dolls, dresses, laces, mats, cushions and crochet work. The most distinctive article for sale at the Rochester fair was Autographs for Freedom. Miss Griffiths appropriated this idea from the Boston Female Society which, since 1840, had annually issued The Liberty Bell, written cooperatively by "The Friends of Freedom."
Autographs for Freedom was a collection of poems, letters, essays, statements and excerpts from anti-slavery speeches. The authors thus thrown together under a single cover were a motley group—Negro reformers such as Charles Reason, George Vashon, J. McCune Smith and John Mercer Langston; political abolitionists such as Joshua Giddings, William H. Seward and William Jay; preaching abolitionists such as Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Parker, and strong-minded women such as Antoinette Brown, Jane Swisshelm and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Facsimilies of the authors' signatures, appended to their respective contributions, gave the volume its title. Most of the selections were brief, frequently not more than a page in length.
The contents of Autographs were uneven. An occasional piece of fine writing crept in between an uninspired poem and a hackneyed anti-slavery diatribe. William Wells Brown's, "Visit of a Fugitive Slave to the Grave of Wilberforce," in theme and literary finish is among the best pieces of abolitionist belles-lettres. George Vashon's "Vincent Ogé," is an ambitious narrative poem of a Haitian leader, written with rich imagery. However, Autographs was better known for its artistic typography and clear-cut engravings than for its literary merit. The book sold for $1.25 in plain muslin; $1.50 with gilt edges, and $2.00 with "full gilt sides and edges." Two printings appeared; one in 1853 and the other in 1854.
The proceeds from the joint sales of Autographs and needle goods at the bazaar netted between $200 and $300. If sales were poor in Rochester, Miss Griffiths went to Toronto and there disposed of the unsold items. Douglass was deeply grateful to this indefatigable woman. Editorially, late in 1854, he appraised her services: "In referring to those who have assisted us in keeping up the paper during the year, and for the past three years, we are indebted to none more than to that ever active and zealous friend of the slave, Miss Julia Griffiths."
Miss Griffiths' fertility in expedients, however, was unequal to the dwindling support from political and abolitionist sources. After 1855, the paper was a rapidly declining enterprise. In desperation, Miss Griffiths decided to go abroad with the express purpose of appealing for aid. She returned to her native land, armed with letters recommending the cause. Lewis Tappan's letter praised Douglass "as a man deserving entire confidence. . . . His paper is well conducted, beautifully printed, and is an able auxiliary to the cause of emancipation." William Goodell praised Miss Griffiths and voiced his regret that it was necessary "to tax our English friends for help to emancipate our boasted land of liberty." Gerrit Smith also commended Miss Griffiths and hoped that she would find many sympathizers.
In the British Isles, Miss Griffiths received indorsements from many local abolition societies. One of these printed appeals recommended Douglass' paper "as a standing testimony against the calumny uttered respecting the inferiority of the coloured man." After briefly reviewing the reasons for the paper's financial straits, the pamphlet concluded that Douglass' journal "should have a vested capital, the interest of which would bring in a regular income, that would enable it to stand its ground, otherwise it must go down."
Douglass' friends had high hopes from Miss Griffiths' mission. Many Englishmen remembered Douglass; the anti-slavery cause had been kept before the British public by a stream of fugitive slaves and Negro abolitionists bent on exploiting the moral and evangelical sentiments of the English reformers. From its beginning, Douglass' paper had many British subscribers. In 1850, the North Star had forty-two subscribers in Glasgow, fourteen in Edinburgh, eight in Falkirk, seven in Belfast, eight in Dublin, and a total of eighteen in Derby, Liverpool and London. From time to time English friends and admirers had sent donations.
Miss Griffiths set herself to the task with typical energy. Due to her persuasion, a few anti-slavery societies made annual donations of $25. In June 1858, Douglass, apparently following her advice, brought out an additional publication, Douglass' Monthly, planned mainly for circulation in the British Isles. It is impossible to determine how much Miss Griffiths raised. Undoubtedly Douglass' attack on the Garrisonians weakened her in collecting monies. At any rate, the results were not encouraging; all efforts failed to reduce the outstanding debts. In 1859, Douglass was compelled to bring his weekly out in a reduced size; it looked, wrote May to Webb, "like one of our one-cent papers." The end came in July 1860. Delinquent subscribers were to blame. The weekly expenses of the skeletonized paper had been $45 to $50: "the receipts were nearly zero."
The inglorious exit of Douglass' periodicals does not diminish the importance of their three-fold contribution: to the editor's personal development, to the promotion of racial self-exertion and self-reliance, and to the edification of the white public in the United States and the British Isles. As to Douglass personally, his editorship expanded the scope of his abilities. He acquired the sense of authority that goes with the power to hire and discharge. He grew familiar with the economics of journalism and learned the mysteries of debit and credit. The making of policy-forming decisions stimulated cerebration.
Douglass' newspaper career gave him a broadened insight concerning the peculiar problems of the Negro. For the more than six years prior to starting his paper, Douglass had travelled almost exclusively in company with white abolitionists and had moved in a white milieu. As a Garrisonian his interest in the many-sided Negro problem extended little beyond the abolitionist movement. With the launching of the North Star, Douglass became a Negro leader in the totality of his interests and outlooks. His attention reached out to the question of Negro exclusion from "white" churches, to the practice of racial segregation in the public schools, and to an analysis of the whole principle underlying separate accommodations for white and colored. While anti-slavery rather than Negro protest, Douglass' weekly mirrored his concern with all problems growing out of the color line. His outlook after assuming editorship showed a keen awareness of the problems confronting the rank and file of Negroes whose modest abilities were insufficient to bestride even the lower hurdles of color prejudice.
A typical example of his interest in the Negro masses was his editorial advice to "learn trades or starve." Douglass pointed out that white men were taking jobs—porters, stevedores, hodcarriers and brick-makers—formerly held exclusively by Negroes. "Formerly blacks were almost the exclusive coachmen in wealthy families; this is so no longer; white men are now employed and, for aught we see, they fill their servile state with an obsequiousness as profound as that of the blacks." On the unskilled level the answer to this competition was the mastery of some mechanical art: "If the alternative were presented to us of learning a trade or of getting an education, we should learn the trade, for the reason that with the trade we could get the education while with the education we could not get a trade." Douglass praised the gospel of physical labor: "The American Colonization Society tells you to go to Liberia. Mr. Bibb tells you to go to Canada. Others tell you to go to school. We tell you to go to work."
Douglass' periodicals contributed to the development of Negroes other than their editor. Race-conscious Negroes could experience a vicarious pride at the sight of a well-edited Negro sheet. Colored poets, essayists and letter-writers could gratify the American love of seeing one's name in print. College-trained Negroes could give public expression to literary urges which otherwise might have totally escaped posterity. Colored leaders used the columns of the weekly to express their views and denounce detractors of the race. Inevitably many of these contributions from Negro writers were characterized by special pleading. To the charges of Negro inferiority these race champions answered with a counter-propaganda that was often as questionable in logic as the allegations they purported to refute. But their sincerity was unquestioned and their sense of the purposiveness of history was sure. They were confident that they were on the side of right—the side that would triumph ultimately whether the universe were governed by God's moral law, the stars in their courses or the intuitions of nature.
A final influence exerted by Douglass' weekly was its effect on white readers. The white public, particularly that section that did not uncritically accept the slaveholder's contention that the Negro was congenitally inferior, could not fail to receive a favorable impression from the North Star, Frederick Douglass' Paper, and Douglass' Monthly. Here was a paper that stood comparison with the best-edited weeklies of the antebellum period. Here was a paper free from orthographical mistakes and rhapsodies in bad grammar. Here—and this was the most telling point of all—here was the work of a Negro who had spent twenty years in the prison-house of slavery. To ignore the influence of Douglass' weekly on reformist sentiment in the decade preceding the Civil War is to tell an incomplete story of the abolitionist crusade.
Houston A. Baker, Jr. (essay date 1972)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5447
SOURCE: "Revolution and Reform: Walker, Douglass, and the Road to Freedom," in Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture, 1972. Reprint by The University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 58-83.
[In the following excerpt, Baker analyzes the literary techniques of Douglass's Narrative by contrasting it, in terms of style and tone, with David Walker's Appeal.]
During the first half of the nineteenth century, two monuments of the black literary tradition had their birth. One was David Walker's Appeal, written in 1829, and the other was Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, which appeared in 1845. Both captured the spirit of their epoch, and both define certain modes, techniques, and conventions that since their time have played significant roles in the literary tradition of which they are a part.
The first half of the nineteenth century was one of the most dynamic stages in American history. It was an age of territorial expansion carrying the United States to the Pacific; new frontiers were opening, and the quest for frontier was an important element in the American world view. The nation participated fully in world trade, and its northern regions entered into the period of growth that was eventually to carry America to the position of the world's leading producer. It was an age in which power was gradually diffusing itself and moving into the hands of the people, and the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and again in 1832 is perhaps the best manifestation of this diffusion of political power.
To a certain extent early nineteenth-century America was like early nineteenth-century England, where increasing industrialization brought about shifts in population and power. Like Englishmen, Americans championed the idea of progress, and in an age of expansion and shifting power, they looked toward a bright and glorious future. England and America, moreover, were both characterized by a high degree of evangelical zeal; belief in salvation by faith and grace and in the authority of the gospel found many ardent followers.
Religious zeal, a moral impulse to reform, and Utopian visions of the future—these three elements stand out in the history of England and America in the 1830s. In America they found their readiest expression in the abolitionist movement. In England, the same impulses led to the abolition of West Indian slavery in 1833. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Arthur Tappan, Charles G. Finney, and James Birney are the names most often associated with the American abolitionist movement. Garrison's Liberator, founded in 1831, was one of the many weeklies that aroused America's concern for the plight of the slave. Abolitionist newspapers provided a forum for free blacks in America, and until 1870 they were instrumental in focusing attention on essential reforms such as emancipation, free soil, women's rights, pacifism, and temperance.
There were many reform movements in nineteenth-century America, but the abolitionist movement captured the imagination of a broad segment of the populace and seemed to express the spirit of the age. Numerous antislavery societies were established; by 1836 there were at least five hundred abolition societies in the free states, and by 1840 these societies had a membership of at least 150,000 persons. The names on the membership rolls were not simply those of whites. As Benjamin Quarles has pointed out [in The Negro in the Making of America, 1968], "black Americans were conspicuously in their ranks from the outset." Lerone Bennett [in Before the Mayflower, 1966] also underscores the important role played by blacks in the movement: "In the forties, fugitive slaves moved into the front lines of the antislavery battle. No abolitionist meeting was complete without the presence of a Negro speaker or a Negro exhibit (a fugitive slave)." Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, Robert Purvis, and Charles Redmond are just a few of the black Americans who made significant contributions.
The zeal of the abolitionists led some to call them fanatics; others called them worse. The debate over their sanity, moreover, has yet to be resolved; Richard O. Curry's The Abolitionists, for example, is subtitled, "Reformers or Fanatics?" Allowing for prejudices and vested interests, it might be said that some abolitionists were more "engaged" than others: a distinction might be made between the "immediatists" who said "now" and meant this very moment and the temperate immediatists who endorsed reform rather than violent revolution. In both camps, however, religion was clearly the sanction for action, and "a merciful providence" had a great deal to do with how one proceeded. The polarity between revolution and reform in the abolitionist movement is well illustrated by the works of David Walker and Frederick Douglass. The Protestant ethical base of the abolitionist movement finds expression in the works of both writers. . . .
[Frederick Douglass's Narrative] begins, in the manner of so many slave narratives, at the lowest ebb of humanity; the narrator does not know his age or his father's identity. As nearly as he can ascertain, his father was a white man—his master. He thus belongs to the class of the "tragic mulatto," a figure used by abolitionist writers to symbolize the displacement of the black American caught between two worlds as well as the master's miscegenatory desires. He tells us that he was never close to his mother, since he saw her only four or five times before she died. This is not to say that Douglass starts by presenting himself as an oppressively tragic figure; on the contrary, one is immediately impressed by the straightforward, unornamented presentation with which the Narrative opens. Douglass simply says: "I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland." This approach, much like Walker's, is as detailed and realistic an account as one could imagine. From the beginning, however, we receive more than simple narration; we are plunged at once into an agrarian environment with the narrator's dry quip about the slave and the horse who are in the same condition since neither knows his age. The agrarian setting is further established by the enumeration of the seasons of the slave's year: "planting-time," "harvest-time," "cherry-time," "spring-time," and "fall-time."
Douglass's concern with a realistic setting and straightforward narration (as opposed to Walker's flights of rhetoric) results in part from Douglass's almost exclusive attention to the temporal. Walker, who often wrote in prophetic tones of God's revelations, was never averse to moving in divine regions. For Douglass, however, religion was a much more practical affair. He views Christianity as "pure, peaceable, and impartial," as did the evangelical upper middle-class of nineteenth-century England and America. Although in the "Appendix" to the Narrative he turns a scorn equal to Walker's on the "slaveholding religion" of America, he very seldom addresses his audience in the tone of the fire-and-brimstone preachers of America's late-eighteenth-century religious revivals. In the Narrative he always seems to view religion as a pursuit designed to make men better and more dignified while on earth; the example of Jesus Christ offers him a paradigm for emulation, while for Walker it was a celestial threat to be used against the sinful and the skeptical. Douglass takes "the Christianity of Christ" (in its most incarnate form) as a sanction for his actions, and proceeds on a much more mundane level than his contemporary.
The techniques that we encounter on the first page of Douglass's work, therefore—the stark, visualized narration and the dry, ironic wit, the verisimilitude, and the agrarian setting—continue throughout the Narrative; they make the work at once simple and enthralling. Douglass is far removed from the impassioned writer of the Appeal, but interestingly enough his work brings home its point just as effectively as Walker's. Perhaps the difference between the two resides in the fact that Douglass was at the beginning of a long and fruitful career when he wrote his Narrative; Walker, on the other hand, was an embittered middle-aged man, screaming, as a last, desperate measure, at the "world's wrong." Douglass, moreover, was born with a different gift of words, an ability to transport audiences, as Bennett has pointed out, "to slave row," by his highly artistic and sophisticated use of language. While Walker tried to bring about changes by explosive words, cascading phrases, and pyrotechnic catalogues, Douglass was content to present a bleak picture in a sparse style; and the economy of his style tends to reinforce the poverty and oppressiveness of the situations which he describes. Here, for example, is his description of a whipping:
Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d—d b—h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook.
The passage continues in this manner, and the details are so specific and the tone so matter-of-fact that we are almost lulled into insensitivity. We awake with a start when we recall what is actually going on, and the impression that Douglass's presentation of human cruelty makes is a lasting one.
The impact of Douglass's straightforward narration is again demonstrated in his account of the murder of a slave for disobedience:
The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.
Daniel Defoe or Victor Hugo might well have been proud of this description. The only hints of the author's bias are the words poor and victim, but with the help of these two words in the proper places, Douglass is able to present a scene of almost unimaginable brutality. A final example further reveals Douglass's craftsmanship; he describes his reduction to a state of abject servility at the hands of a slave breaker: "I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!" A more telling account of the fall into the slough of despond could hardly be given; the passage is not high-flown, it is not allegorical, it is not symbolic; it is a simple account of the effects of slavery.
Douglass was a masterful chronicler of horrors, but to present him solely in this light is to misrepresent his work. The Narrative is charged with a subtle, dry, and ironic humor, which provides comic relief and adds to the reader's sense of a detached and objective narrator. Commenting on the increase of mulatto children in the South, Douglass remarks:
If the lineal descendents of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters.
Of the demise of a particularly cruel overseer, Douglass says: "His death was regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence." Noting the frequent controversies among slaves as to which had the wealthiest master, he comments:
These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man's slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!
Douglass's humor is valuable not simply because it gives us relief from the gruelling details of slavery. It brings us close to the essential humanity of the situation, and more important, it leads us to a balanced realistic point of view, for if it is a humor of detached irony, it is also, like Wordsworth's, one of loving kindness. Douglass does not turn a satirical, objective glance on the follies of mankind; his smile, like that of Richard Wright's protagonist in Native Son, is "a faint, wry, bitter smile." While fully aware of the ridiculousness of certain human situations, he also realizes his own involvement in them and their larger implications.
While humor adds a degree of realism to the Narrative, it is Douglass's verisimilitude that brings us fully in touch with the experiences of the man behind the work. We are placed directly on the scene by the author's close attention to specific detail. We learn, for example, the exact number of Colonel Lloyd's slaves, horses, and cultivated acres. We become acquainted with the narrator's place of residence in Baltimore in terms of the area, the street, the neighbors, and the treatment accorded the neighbors' slaves. We learn exactly how wheat was fanned in Douglass's day, how many men it took to do the job, and the assignment of each.
Douglass's skill at characterization and his ability to evoke a particular setting also lend an air of reality to the Narrative. Nearly every activity and character we encounter is connected with an agrarian scene. We watch harvesting and the transporting of goods by water; we witness the actions of overseers, Southern preachers, and slave breakers; we see the slave cabins, barns, and stables. There is no hothouse atmosphere in Douglass's work; never is life reduced to the taking of toast and tea. The world of the Narrative is a world of action, one in which only the strong and determined survive. Moreover, Douglass is able to populate his world with highly individualized and believable characters—Captain Auld, Mr. Covey, and Mr. Freeland, for example. The narrator's powers of characterization may be seen in his description of Captain Auld:
His airs, words, and actions, were the airs, words, and actions of born slaveholders, and, being assumed, were awkward enough. He was not even a good imitator. He possessed all the disposition to deceive, but wanted the power. Having no resources within himself, he was compelled to be the copyist of many, and being such, he was forever the victim of inconsistency; and of consequence he was an object of contempt, and was held as such even by his slaves.
Douglass demonstrates in this passage one of his favorite techniques—the use of antithesis.
One can scarcely treat the agragrian settings and characters in Douglass's Narrative without some discussion of the animal metaphors that appear in most of the chapters of the Narrative. . . . Douglass uses [such a] figure to describe his joy when given the chance to go to Baltimore: "It was almost a sufficient motive, not only to make me take off what would be called by pig-drovers the mange, but the skin itself." Speaking of the anguish that resulted from a grasp of his situation, Douglass comments: "In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile." These images, of course, serve to reinforce Douglass's descriptions of the "soul-killing" effects of slavery; in a word, they make the effects of the three-fifths clause immediate. Slaves, like horses and other wild animals, were "broken." Like Walker, Douglass is aware of American slavery's chattel principle, which equated slaves with livestock, and he is not reluctant to employ animal metaphors to capture the general inhumanity of the system. Moreover, as were the slave narrators of black animal tales, he was surely aware that he and his "loved fellow-slaves" were usually on better terms with the animals than with the owners of the farms and plantations on which they worked.
Douglass's work is a chronicle of the "soul-killing" effect slavery had on both master and the slave. Time and again in the Narrative men's hopes for a better life are crushed: humans are whipped and slaughtered like animals; men and women are changed into maniacal and sadistic creatures by power; the strength of mind and body is destroyed by an avaricious and degrading system. Captain Auld, Douglass and his fellow slaves, Mrs. Hugh Auld, Mr. Covey, Anthony Auld—practically every character we encounter in the Narrative is rendered less human by the effects of slavery. Douglass's work, however, does not simply describe the degradation occasioned by slavery; it also illustrates how a sense of community, a spirit of revolt and resistance, and a mastery of disguise and deportment—black survival values which we encountered in the folk tradition—assist in the development and ultimate escape of the person who is willing to employ them. We are confronted in the Narrative with a record of the early development of one individual, a Bildungsroman, which records the growth to manhood of a small slave boy whom we first see in a tow-linen shirt enjoying a relatively work-free life. Then we see a boy at twelve years of age playing the trickster in order to acquire the rudiments of education:
After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, "I don't believe you. Let me see you try it." I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that. In this way I got a good many lessons in writing, which it is quite possible I should never have gotten in any other way.
At sixteen the boy adopts the code of the badman hero and wrestles a fierce slave breaker into submission, vowing after the struggle that "the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." The nineteen-year-old man, with his fellow slaves, makes an abortive attempt for freedom, and the twenty-year-old man finally gains his liberty using the same type of disguise and deportment that we see in "The Watcher Blinded." Douglass does not tell us so in the Narrative, but he made his escape to the North by wearing a sailor's uniform and travelling as a free man.
We must admit that at times the author grows maudlin (in describing the plight of his grandmother, for example), and at times he is clearly too rhetorical (the soliloquy by the bay). For the most part, however, he is a candid, witty and thorough narrator, able to play the diverse stops of the human condition with consummate skill. It seems appropriate, therefore, to classify the Narrative as a consciously literary work, and one of the first order. The black folk background manifests itself in the values that make survival possible in a brutal system, as well as in individual incidents, such as that in which Sandy Jenkins gives Douglass a root for his protection:
He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me.
Douglass, like thousands of his fellow black men, attributes some power to the root even though he knew (at the time he was writing his Narrative) that his own strength and spirit of resistance had perhaps more to do with his escaping Covey's intended lashing than anything else. He again employs and helps to define folk tradition when he deals with the songs of his fellow slaves. He notes that the songs had a subliminal or hidden component: "They would sing [the songs] as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves." He goes on to show that they were actually sorrow songs—"Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy"—and adds: "To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery." What we have, then, is both explication and appreciation of the folk heritage. Finally, Douglass turns a deflating irony on white preachers. Of Reverend Rigby Hopkins, a devout religionist, he says:
Mr. Hopkins was even worse than Mr. Weeden. His chief boast was his ability to manage slaves. The peculiar feature of his government was that of whipping slaves in advance of deserving it. He always managed to have one or more of his slaves to whip every Monday morning. He did this to alarm their fears, and strike terror into those who escaped.
The hypocrisy and pretension here are similar in some respects to the human failings seen in black preacher tales, though the purpose of the narration in this instance is much more serious.
Although the connection of Douglass's work with the black American folk tradition is clear, his obvious concern for the craft of writing places the Narrative in the realm of sophisticated literary autobiography. More specifically, Douglass's work is a spiritual autobiography akin to the writings of such noted white American authors as Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Adams. The narrator wishes to set before the reader not only his fully realized spiritual self, but also the hallowed values that made possible such a self.
The Narrative, however, can be distinguished from the works of white American spiritual autobiographers because its essential goal is physical freedom. The narrator is not seeking to become one among the divine elect, nor is he attempting to forge a private, moralizing self as a foil to an intensely practical and political age that stressed the virtues of the public man. He seeks to move, by any means necessary, from a cruel physical bondage to freedom. Arna Bontemps [in Great Slave Narratives, 1969] is correct, therefore, in designating Douglass's Narrative a representative work in a separate American genre—the slave narrative. The unique angle of vision that characterizes Douglass's work is—for obvious reasons—unmatched in the white American autobiographical tradition, and the author's handling of this perspective is among the most accomplished efforts in the tradition of black autobiography. And his achievements in this genre place him in the front ranks of black authors, since the autobiographical mode is one of the most important in the black American literary tradition. The tasks of portraying the unique character of one's group and of selectively recovering the self, which many writers have considered distinct, are one for the black autobiographer. Douglass's narrator not only secures his own liberty, but also becomes something of a mythic figure, taking his place in the same framework that includes the drinking gourd, the underground railroad, and the North Star.
Although an orator himself, Frederick Douglass, unlike David Walker, was not interested in rendering the intonation and diction of oratory into written form. While the latter's work parallels that of the declamatory poets of black America, Douglass is allied with the formalists. William Robinson characterizes the formalist poets (Phillis Wheatley, George M'Clellan, Ann Plato, and Henrietta Cordelia Ray) as those who "reveal formal influences of classical propriety and restraint and conscious control. . . ." Douglass effectively applies sophisticated literary techniques—irony, wit, caricature, understatement, humor; he never lacks the right word or the proper anecdote to emphasize his point; and he relies upon masterful and convincing literary presentation rather than fiery rhetoric. In fact, it is the passages in which he lapses into oratory that detract from the overall effect of his work. The differences in the forms and styles employed by Douglass and Walker bespeak a larger difference, for David Walker was, in essence, a nineteenth-century revolutionary, and Douglass was a reformer. The Appeal reflects the values of those who are labelled "fanatics," while the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass manifests the values of the Garrisonian abolitionist reformers who were in favor of moral suasion and opposed to any interaction (especially that of a political character) with slaveholders.
Walker's work, addressed to the "coloured people of the world," is an impassioned, ofttimes bitter appeal for revolutionary action. Douglass's is one of the most finished of many slave narratives, which generally were written for abolitionist purposes and principally for white readership. The incentive for this work was provided by reports that many whites in the audiences Douglass addressed under the auspices of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society could not believe such polished speeches came from a man who had been a slave. Philip Foner writes [in Frederick Douglass, 1969]:
Douglass was aware that if such reports continued, they would be fatal to his effectiveness as an Abolitionist agent. So he resolved to throw caution to the winds and write the story of his life. During the winter months of 1844-45 he was busily engaged in setting down an account of his slave experiences.
Douglass intended to convince his white readers that he had suffered the dire effects of slavery, presumably hoping that in their moral outrage they would first acknowledge his remarkable achievement and then go forth to protest the abuses of slavery in America. The prime motivating force for his work and his Garrisonian stance help to explain his restrained posture and sophisticated style.
In some ways these same factors distinguish Douglass's work from the poorer slave narratives. In his attempts to persuade and convince, the author was forced to go beyond the format that was later to become standard for the slave chronicle. We are confronted with a host of fully rounded characters in the Narrative; we have a number of finely drawn scenes presented one after the other; and while we sense the irony, we also sense the genuine feeling of sincerity in the work. Only a few American narratives have such characteristics, and only one by an African is so distinguished. (The narratives of Solomon Northup and Henry Bibb are on a par with Douglass's; William Wells Brown's, which copies incidents from Douglass's, has little of the force and power of the latter's; and Gustavus Vassa's The Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African is the only close parallel written by an African slave.) Douglass provided one of the most popular and enthralling works of literature written in the nineteenth century and, ironically, he intentionally produced it for an audience almost exclusively white.
Audience expectations, if taken alone, are enough to account for the aesthetic differences in the Narrative and the Appeal, but beyond these differences there are significant ideological ones. Douglass worked within the existing order to obtain his most salient victories: he was editor and publisher of the North Star, Frederick Douglass's Paper, and The New National Era; he worked throughout much of his life as an abolitionist or reform lecturer; he served as marshal of the United States for the District of Columbia; and he was minister-resident and consulgeneral to the Republic of Haiti. Walker, on the other hand, wrote for two black abolitionist newspapers—Freedom's Journal and Rights of All—and was a seller of secondhand clothes whose entire life, as far as we know, was devoted to promulgating a violent overthrow of the existing order. He placed copies of his Appeal in the pockets of the clothes which he sold to seamen who were likely to make their way to the South, and he devoted his last energies to revising and editing the third edition of the Appeal, one of the most revolutionary texts produced in the nineteenth century. Not that Douglass, who helped to desegregate the public schools of Rochester, New York and talked of striking the "first blow," did not take decisive actions. The dichotomy in approach is somewhat like that between the doctrines of the late Martin Luther King and those of Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. At times Douglass spoke more forcefully than Dr. King ever did; he often mentioned "blows," "bullets," and "the cartridge box," and he was in great sympathy with John Brown's plan to establish a garrison of runaway slaves in the Allegheny Mountains—although shortly before the raid on Harper's Ferry, he refused to join Brown's party.
Given their significant ideological differences, it is not surprising that Douglass's Narrative is akin in style and sensibility to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, while Walker's Appeal is closer to Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice. In one of his fine autobiographical moments, Baldwin describes John Grimes's descent into the white world of New York: "These glories were unimaginable—but the city was real. He stood for a moment on the melting snow, distracted, and then began to run down the hill, feeling himself fly as the descent became more rapid, and thinking: 'I can climb back up. If it's wrong, I can always climb back up.'" And in Invisible Man, Ellison's autobiographical narrator describes a scene in the chapel of a black Southern college:
Here upon this stage the black rite of Horatio Alger was performed to God's own acting script, with millionaires come down to portray themselves; not merely acting out the myth of their goodness, and wealth and success and power and benevolence and authority in cardboard masks, but themselves, these virtues concretely. Not the wafer and the wine, but the flesh and the blood, vibrant and alive, and vibrant even when stooped, ancient and withered. (And who, in the face of this, would not believe? Could even doubt?)
The autobiographical impulse is present in the novels of both Baldwin and Ellison, and it is the informing principle of Douglass's work. The uncertainty of Baldwin's John Grimes as he races toward one type of freedom is much like that of Douglass and his friends as they plan their escape in the Narrative; and the combination of irony with the amazing force of description in Ellison's passage is reminiscent of the wit and energy that exposes pretenders throughout the Narrative. The finish of style, descriptive power, and ease of narration seen in Baldwin and Ellison as they move their protagonists from bondage toward freedom find ready parallel in Douglass's work.
A passage from Soul On Ice demonstrates how close the work as a whole is to Walker's Appeal, and how far removed both are from the best of Douglass, Baldwin, and Ellison. Speaking of Muhammad Ali, Cleaver writes:
A racist Black Muslim heavyweight champion is a bitter pill for racist white America to swallow. Swallow it—or throw the whole bit up, and hope that in the convulsions of your guts, America, you can vomit out the poisons of hate which have led you to a dead end in this valley of the shadow of death.
There is a distinct affinity between this address to the country at large, ringing with denunciation and black pride, and any number of passages in Walker's Appeal. In essence, the difference between Douglass, Baldwin, and Ellison on one hand and Walker and Cleaver on the other is the difference between the self-conscious, controlled literary artist and the impassioned pamphleteer. This is by no means to say that the latter two never transcend the limits of the pamphleteer, but rather to suggest that denunciation, righteous indignation, and revolutionary appeals are vastly more prevalent in their works than in those of Douglass, Baldwin, and Ellison.
Nevertheless, when all has been said, we must recognize that both Frederick Douglass and David Walker produced works which expressed the spirit of their age but which transcend the limitations and hazards of time—works, in short, that find their counterparts in the writings of our most recent black American authors. The road for both nineteenth-century writers stretched between two alternatives that are consummately set forth in the Narrative:
On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us—its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-covered mountain stood a doubtful freedom—half frozen—beckoning us to come and share her hospitality.
Both writers labored along freedom's road, under the dim light of the north star, and though they chose different modes of travel, both achieved their goals, contributing to humanity on the way.
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Andrews, William L., ed. Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, 217 p.
Comprehensive collection of essays on Douglass, including early reviews and modern scholarship from such critics as Margaret Fuller, J. Saunders Redding, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Robert B. Stepto.
Dorsey, Peter A. "Becoming the Other: The Mimesis of Metaphor in Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom." PMLA 111, No. 3 (May 1996): 435-50.
Examines Douglass's use of rhetoric in his second autobiographical account.
Evans, James H., Jr. "Sin and the Stain of Blackness: The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass." In Spiritual Empowerment in Afro-American Literature: Frederick Douglass, Rebecca Jackson, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, pp. 23-52. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1987.
Discusses psychological and socio-political aspects of Douglass's Narrative, including issues of freedom, self-discovery, and the crisis of identity.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, and Carla L. Peterson. "'We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident': The Rhetoric of Frederick Douglass's Journalism." In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 189-204. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Explores the rhetorical strategies of Douglass's social and political writings.
Foner, Philip S., ed. Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976, 190 p.
Selection of Douglass's writings and speeches on women's rights issues.
Franchot, Jenny. "The Punishment of Esther: Frederick Douglass and the Construction of the Feminine." In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 141-65. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Studies Douglass's placement of the victimized feminine at "the emotional center of his critique on slavery."
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Frederick Douglass and the Language of the Self." In Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self, pp. 98-124. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Examines Douglass's strategies of public self-representation.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991, 465 p.
Standard modern biography of Douglass.
Meyer, Michael, ed. Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings. New York: Random House, Inc., 1984, 391 p.
Collection of excerpts from Douglass's autobiographies, journalism, and fiction, preceded by a biographical introduction.
Olney, James. "The Founding Fathers—Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington." In Slavery and the Literary Imagination, pp. 1-24. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Explores the relationship between the autobiographies of Douglass and Washington by examining them in their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
Quarles, Benjamin. "Abolition's Different Drummer: Frederick Douglass." In The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists, edited by Martin Duberman, pp. 123-34. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Recounts Douglass's contribution to the abolitionist movement.
Ripley, Peter. "The Autobiographical Writings of Frederick Douglass." Southern Studies XXIV, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 5-29.
Focuses on the historical background to each of Douglass's three autobiographies.
Rogers, William B. "Frederick Douglass." In "We Are All Together Now": Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and The Prophetic Tradition, pp. 87-129. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.
Opening with a brief biography of Douglass's life, discusses his personal values, criticism of slavery, and efforts to bring about constitutional reform on race issues.
Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 295 p.
Assortment of contemporary critical perspectives on Douglass's writings.
——. "Signs of Power: Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass." In To Wake the Nations: Race and the Making of American Literature, pp. 27-134. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Investigates developments in Douglass's thoughts on and literary portrayal of slavery.
Takaki, Ronald T. "Not Afraid to Die: Frederick Douglass and Violence." In Violence in the Black Imagination: Essays and Documents, pp. 17-35. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.
Examination of Douglass's often ambivalent attitude toward the use of violence in achieving black emancipation.
Yarborough, Richard. "Race, Violence, and Manhood: The Masculine Ideal in Frederick Douglass's 'The Heroic Slave.'" In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 166-88. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Considers the problems associated with Douglass's incorporation of an Anglo-American ideal of masculinity into his narrative of Afro-American rebellion.
Additional coverage of Douglass's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Black Literature Criticism; Discovering Authors; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 1: The American Renaissance in New England, Volume 43: American Newspaper Journalists, 1690-1872, Volume 50: Afro-American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance, Volume 79: American Magazine Journalists, 1850-1900.
James Matlack (essay date 1979)
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SOURCE: "The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, in Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, Vol. XL, No. 1, first quarter, March, 1979, pp. 15-28.
[In the following essay, Matlack assesses the symbolic value of Douglass's three autobiographies and notes an overall decline in the literary quality of his later works.]
The best-known and most influential slave narrative written in America was probably the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Within four months of its publication in 1845 five thousand copies were sold. Aided by favorable reviews and new editions, both in America and Britain, some thirty thousand had been sold by 1860. The Narrative thrust Douglass into the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. Coupled with his extensive speaking tours, it made Douglass the first black American to "command an audience that extended beyond local boundaries or racial ties."
Douglass' Narrative is consistently cited as one of the best-written autobiographies among scores of such accounts produced by or in the name of ex-slaves during the 1840s and 1850s. Much of its effectiveness was due to the superior technique with which Douglass told his tale. Lurid reports on the evils of slavery were plentiful. Douglass' Narrative was exceptional in the degree of artistic skill and shaping through which it conveyed a similar message. The following essay will examine the symbolic value of Douglass' autobiographical act, especially the relationship between his literary creation and his actual life. Comparisons among the successive versions of his autobiography will clarify this relationship and demonstrate the literary excellence of the 1845 Narrative. The increasing length, loosened form, and declining literary merit of Douglass' autobiographical accounts issued in 1855, 1881, and 1892 became a sad index of the wearying struggles and frustrations of his later life.
The content of Douglass' Narrative was essentially the same material which he had presented countless times as a roving Abolitionist spokesman. His success as a stump speaker virtually forced its publication. The pressure to publish mounted on two sides—Douglass' relations with his widespread audiences and his relations with his white fellow-workers. In the first instance, he had to establish his credibility; in the second, his independence.
As with so many aspects of life in America for blacks, their participation in the crusade against slavery was largely controlled by white leaders. Even among the Abolitionists there were strong racial prejudices. Douglass said in the mid-1850s: "Opposing slavery and hating its victims has come to be a very common form of abolitionism." The crucial role of blacks in the anti-slavery struggle was generally acknowledged but it was narrowly defined. Blacks were to tell of their firsthand experience in bondage and, by the very act of successful platform presentation, refute the charge that Negroes suffered inherent mental disabilities. In addition, they were a strong drawing card. John A. Collins, general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, told William Lloyd Garrison, "The public have itching ears to hear a colored man speak, and particularly a slave. Multitudes will flock to hear one of this class." Frederick Douglass met this need superbly. He became the greatest of the ex-slave orators.
The skill of Douglass' platform performance on tour began to raise doubts. He spoke too well. The sophisticated style and learned tone which he rapidly developed seemed out of character. Collins advised him, "People won't believe you ever were a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way. . . . Better have a little of the plantation speech than not." Since he did not talk, look, or act like a slave (in the eyes of Northern audiences), Douglass was denounced as an imposter. There could be but one effective rejoinder to this Yankee skepticism.
In a little less than four years, therefore, after becoming a public lecturer, I was induced to write out the leading facts connected with my experience in slavery, giving the names of persons, places, and dates, thus putting it in the power of any who doubted, to ascertain the truth or falsehood of my story.
Douglass proved that he was not a fake. But the validation of his tales of former bondage opened a direct threat of recapture. Once having fully identified himself, he lost the anonymity which was essential to a fugitive slave. In his introductory letter to Douglass' Narrative, Wendell Phillips exclaimed, "The whole armory of Northern Law has no shield for you. I am free to say that, in your place, I should throw the MS. into the fire."
The irony of Douglass' predicament was compounded by events following publication of the manuscript. Since he was not safe in the United States, Douglass sailed for England. For two years he campaigned against slavery, winning friends for himself and his cause throughout the British Isles. As a result, when Douglass returned home early in 1847, he came back to America a free man. His supporters in Britain had raised funds and paid $710.96 to purchase his emancipation from his legal owner in Maryland, thereby scandalizing many Abolitionists who condemned payment for human flesh on any pretext. The popularity of Douglass' Narrative contributed much to the success of this scheme. Thus the document which verified his origins in slavery and raised the threat of renewed bondage became the means for achieving his permanent freedom.
The second major factor behind the publication of the Narrative also involved Douglass' freedom but in a particular and troubling way. It was an attempt to throw off patronizing manipulation by white Abolitionists. The act of putting his life in print must be seen as an assertion of independence from the prescribed routines of his white sponsors. Douglass was grateful to the reformers who helped him to become a prime mover in the anti-slavery cause. He grew restive, however, at the limited role they envisioned for him. Douglass' lack of formal education was an asset consciously exploited by Abolitionists who toured with him. His rough plantation background was a prerequisite to telling the truth about slavery. Hence the uneasiness when he gained in eloquence and range of knowledge as a stump speaker. "Give us the facts," Collins told him. "We will take care of the philosophy." It was boring and demeaning to be kept at the same rudimentary level through countless repetitions. "'Tell your story, Frederick,' would whisper my reverend friend, Mr. Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always follow the injunction, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were being presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs—I felt like denouncing them." Douglass' white sponsors did not want him to analyze present conditions or try to shape future actions. They were to be the interpreters and prophets—in short, the leaders—and he was merely the showcase specimen of a fugitive slave.
In penning his Narrative, Douglass broke this cycle. He jettisoned the obsessive preoccupation with his past life and freed himself for more ambitious work. With that material on the record, he could liberate himself from repeating it, and only it, in future speeches. This was a symbolic gesture of near-defiance, an assertion of independence from a certain kind of psychological and role-playing bondage perpetuated by those whites who were most insistently proclaiming the freedom of Negro Americans. It was also a mark of Douglass' strong self-assurance. This trait later led him to start a black newspaper against the advice of all his white allies and to an acrimonious break with Garrison. Throughout his career, Douglass stubbornly insisted upon the right to "speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me."
However resentful of white paternalism, Douglass remained acutely aware of the audience for whom he was writing. The form and style of the Narrative were carefully tailored to persuade and, above all, not to offend a white readership. Only the white majority had the numbers and power to make a difference on the issue of slavery. Douglass therefore had to avoid affronts to the values and prejudices of pious white Northerners. The most conspicuous aspect of form in the Narrative designed to allay hostile reaction is the "frame" within which the autobiographical account is placed, a frame provided by two letters of introduction and Douglass' own Appendix.
In putting their work before the American public, many black writers have had to appear in company with a white spokesman to vouch for them. Whether it be William Dean Howells praising Paul Laurence Dunbar or Maxwell Geismar giving the initial testimony for Eldridge Cleaver, a well-known white has given suitable assurances to the audience before permitting an Afro-American to address them. In Douglass' case, there are character references from Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both friends and prominent Abolitionist leaders. What they say—highly complimentary throughout—is less significant than the fact that it was judged necessary that both speak before Douglass' narrative could begin. The aura of paternalism is heightened by Garrison's obvious pride in the success of his protege.
The Appendix of the Narrative is a further effort by Douglass to put his life's story in a safe perspective. The Appendix counters the view that Douglass was too critical of religion. Such an impression would gravely damage the effectiveness of his work. A Garrisonian Abolitionist, he was committed to moral suasion as the way to end slavery. His greatest appeal was to the moral pretentions and guilt feelings of churchly whites in the North. Douglass had to cover himself against the charge that he was ungodly or irreverent. Hence his explanation, "What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slave-holding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper." If the reader accepts this separation, then Douglass can be excused such assertations in the main text as: "For of all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst." He was none too cautious, however. He attacked the hypocrisy of "the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. . . . They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me an infidel, if I find fault with them for it."
In addition to the Appendix, Douglass appeals to the religious sensibilities of his audience throughout the Narrative. He shows his knowledge of the Bible, uses scriptural idiom, and gives suitable professions of his own belief and his incredulity at the perversions of ostensible Christians. Douglass' portrayal of himself as a faithful suffering Christian is part of a careful strategy to expose the sham piety of slave masters, best exemplified in the Sunday School episode. Along with other willing blacks, Douglass was being helped to read the New Testament by a young white. After three Sundays, a mob led by prominent white Methodists "came upon us with sticks and other missiles, drove us off, and forbade us to meet again. Thus ended our little Sabbath school in the pious town of St. Michael's." This event is shrewdly chosen to elicit maximum sympathy and outrage from readers who see eager souls denied an opportunity to study God's Word by self-proclaimed Christians.
In the main part of the Narrative Douglass conveys an impression of plain, honest testimony about conditions in slavery. He avoids the stylistic and emotional excesses common in the slave narrative genre. Much of the text is given over to careful explanation of the routines of slave life, an informational service to Northern readers which is more devastating for not becoming a tirade. Through calm control and calculated understatement, Douglass firmly establishes his credibility and heightens the impact of the vivid examples of brutality which he presents at strategic points in the narrative.
In order to emphasize the veracity of his account, Douglass consistently shows slaveholders to be devious and dishonest. Amid so much deceit and self-deception, the narrator stands out as one who can tell the truth. Not only do slavers lie to assuage opinion in the North. They also manipulate their own slaves. Douglass tells how the masters keep down "the spirit of insurrection" by encouraging drunken binges on holidays, "a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty." Ultimately the trickery and hypocrisy of the slavers renders them incapable of honest self-appraisal. They become moral monsters. Covey is the extreme example. "Every thing he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he made to conform to his disposition to deceive. He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty."
The dishonesty of the masters has an ironic counterpart in the dissembling which slaves were forced to employ in their own defense. From the beginning, the idiom and culture of Afro-Americans have been characterized by a spirit of double-entendre. Outward contentment and surface meanings, perennially misread by whites, have often been contradicted by deeper feelings and private symbolism. Slave songs could be used to express pain, despair, and protest. They were safe because whites mistook their often sprightly manner as evidence of happiness among the blacks. They used "words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves." Gradually young Douglass came to understand the symbolism of the songs. "Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains."
The basis of Douglass' effectiveness and credibility as narrator is his plain style. His writing is firm, lucid, and brisk. Sentences are usually simple in construction. The reader encounters a direct, confident narrative voice, unencumbered by elaborate rhetorical devices. Saunders Redding has praised the "stringent simplicity" of Douglass' prose. "In utter contrast to the tortured style of most of the slave biographies, Douglass' style is calm and modest." Alain Locke paid tribute to Douglass' "pithy prose so different from the polished and often florid periods of his orations." Douglass weakened his presentation when he tried to be fancy or elegant. The plain facts of slavery are more moving than the artificial devices (such as personification) which he occasionally uses.
Several passages lapse totally from Douglass' usual plain style. The most important are his description of his dying grandmother and his apostrophe to the white-sailed boats on Chesapeake Bay. In both cases Douglass resorts to inflated rhetoric and pumped-up sentimentality. The scenes are intended to draw tears, just as in the sob-fiction of the period, but the rhetorical strategy of both passages fails on the modern reader.
That Douglass was seeking favor with an audience highly susceptible to sentimentality can be inferred from Garrison's praise of the Narrative for producing "a tearful eye, a heaving breast, an afflicted spirit." Douglass fares poorly when he approximates the panting, pushy prose of his mentor's high style. Among the many "affecting incidents," Garrison picks out the soliloquy on sail-boats as supreme in its "pathos and sublimity." While on hire to the brutish Covey, Douglass stood on the bank of the Chesapeake Bay one day watching the sails pass by toward the sea.
Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. .. . I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:—
"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. . . ."
This is of course strictly a literary performance, one which inadvertently reminds the reader that Douglass composed his account years after the events described.
In the shaping of his account, Douglass plotted the peaks of intense feeling with care. Though the staple of the Narrative is calm, detailed exposition, the overall structure of the work resembles popular melodrama. Vivid, artfully staged episodes seek to draw tears, shock, and anger from the reader (e.g. a discussion of hypocrisy among Southern Christians is punctuated by a glimpse of a master quoting Scripture while he lashes the naked shoulders of a crippled black girl). Douglass knew he was competing with hosts of slave narratives, real and invented, which catered to a public taste for the sensational. To his credit, he largely refrained from cheap tricks to elicit emotional responses but one must observe that Douglass appealed to the same elements in popular taste.
Autobiography, especially in America, usually describes the making of a man. Douglass' Narrative tells such a story in an unusually profound and literal way. The central movement of the book is a process of liberation. There are two essential components in this process—literacy, to gain awareness of his selfhood; and resistance, to assert his manhood. Paradoxically, Douglass had to liberate himself psychologically before he could attempt to become free. He began, however, with nothing.
Most autobiographies open with a birth date and a description of the author's parentage. Douglass can supply neither. His story opens in the limbo of bondage, the anonymity of the slave. Virtually a motherless child, as in the old spiritual, he saw his mother only a few times in the middle of the night. She died when he was seven. Douglass' father was white, but he never knew which among the slavers it might be. Progeny of the oppressers, lacking any roots or identity, how could young Douglass know or say who he was? His very name was given him by a white master. Nor should one underestimate the power of slavery to dehumanize its subjects.
I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. . . . He must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
Out of this nothingness, this non-identity, Douglass must forge his own character and sense of himself.
Early in his life Douglass realized that ignorance was a precondition of his bondage. As a bright eight-year-old in Baltimore, he began to learn his A B C's from Mrs. Auld. Her husband put a stop to such dangerous nonsense. "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." He added that if Douglass learned to read, "it would forever unfit him to be a slave." This information awakened young Frederick. "I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man." Henceforth he knew where he must apply himself if he were to be free.
Over the next seven years, slowly and painfully, Douglass learned to read and write. He had to accomplish the task by subterfuge since he was spied upon to prevent just such self-education. He stole bread and traded it for bits of knowledge from white street urchins. He picked up letters of the alphabet from marks on timbers in the shipyard. He practiced his handwriting between the lines of young Thomas Auld's discarded copy books. Douglass was especially keen to learn about any subject which was condemned by the whites. Thus, he gradually came to understand the meaning of "abolitionist" far beyond its dictionary definition. The struggle for literacy, for command over the power of words, was the first stage of his escape from oppression. Without the power of language and the self-affirmation which it opened to him, Douglass might not have been able to survive and to sustain his will to escape.
If literacy and self-awareness represent the crucial first step in Douglass' liberation, then active resistance was the next stage in securing his freedom. The imaginative creation of a self in opposition to slavery was a gesture which prefigured his escape. The turning-point of the Narrative comes in his fight with the "nigger-breaker" Covey, a cunning and ruthless master who constantly harassed and beat the blacks on hire to him. "Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit." This is the nadir of the Narrative. Douglass was ready to kill himself. After collapsing from overwork and another beating, he fled to his old master for redress, only to be forced back to Covey's farm. The following morning, Covey grabbed Douglass unawares and tried to tie him up so that he could be whipped.
I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and, as I did so, I rose. . . . My resistance was so entirely unexpected, that Covey seemed taken aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers.
Though a slave could expect severe punishment for violence against his master, Douglass fought Covey to a draw. Despite being mauled, Covey claimed victory and took no reprisal. He had to protect his reputation as a tough overseer of fractious blacks. As indicated by the imagery of ascendency and renewal which surrounds the fight, it was a moment of deliverance for Douglass.
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. .. . I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.
Through resistance, the assertion of an internalized liberation, Douglass ended the psychological power of slavery over his life. Thereafter it was only a matter of time and opportunity until he would strike for true freedom.
The Narrative leaves the actual break from bondage a cryptic and mysterious transit from Baltimore to New York in 1838. By giving no details of what otherwise would be the climax of the story, more emphasis is thrown back on the consequences of Douglass' fight with Covey and the mental attitudes required for such a flight. There were powerful reasons for not being more explicit about his means of escape. Douglass did not want to compromise those who had helped him, nor prevent other fugitive slaves from following the same route. He criticized successful escapees for boasting of their runaway techniques, thereby reducing the chances of later fugitives. A further though less compelling factor in withholding the manner of Douglass' flight to the North was its anticlimactic character. It hardly matched the powerful thematic and structural build-up through the rest of the Narrative. Douglass himself said that he would have revealed the secret sooner, "had there been anything very heroic or thrilling in the incidents connected with my escape." In 1873 he finally explained how he had ridden North on the railroad out of Baltimore posing as a sailor with "free papers" borrowed from a black seaman who somewhat resembled him.
My Bondage and My Freedom is more than a mere extension of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Major changes in style and structure highlight by comparison the merits of the earlier, shorter version of Douglass' autobiography. The account published in 1855 is longer and more informative. It may provide a better historical and social record but it also represents a distinctly poorer literary performance.
The basic format of My Bondage and My Freedom is a division of Douglass' story into contrasting halves—his experience prior to escape and his career as an anti-slavery activist in the North. The continuity and cohesiveness, the mounting of symbolism and suspense in the Narrative is negated by the broken-backed form adopted in the 1855 version. Douglass is still the spokesman of a great and unresolved issue. The high moral crusade to which he calls the reader still lends a certain force and drive to his narration. But it is diffused and attenuated by an enormously loosened sense of structure and stylistic control. Nothing is taut and crisp. The increased length of My Bondage and My Freedom is due not only to new sections covering the decade of Douglass' life since the appearance of his first autobiography. The old material from the Narrative is stretched out and padded with anecdotes and verbiage which clog the narrative flow.
The moment one begins to read Douglass' 1855 account, the stylistic contrast is evident. The text is more leisurely and wordy. Its pace lags. The first chapter is slow and rambling. There is no punch to it, no strong closing comparable to the whipping scene which concludes the first chapter in the 1845 version. That traumatic episode appears in the fifth chapter, after fifty pages instead of five. The author's style in My Bondage and My Freedom has become flabby. Gone is the terseness so appropriate to describing life under the hardships of bondage. Sentence structure is often complex and sloppy. Puffy rhetoric weakens the impact of the slave scenes. Chummy asides to "my dear reader" further dilute the earlier tone of cold scorn and righteous anger toward slavery and its masters.
One hesitates to differ with so eminent a commentator as Saunders Redding, who has judged Douglass' performance in 1855 superior to that of 1845 and who finds a "surer" style in the later work, but comparison of the texts makes clear that Douglass wrote with less crispness and discipline in his second autobiography. The following parallel passages illustrate the process of stylistic inflation at work.
Narrative of the Life (1845)
I had not gone far before my little strength failed me. I could go no farther. I fell down, and lay for a considerable time. The blood was yet oozing from the wound on my head. For a time I thought I should bleed to death; and think now that I should have done so, but that the blood so matted my hair as to stop the wound.
My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
But I had not gone far, before my little strength again failed me, and I laid down. The blood was still oozing from the wound in my head; and, for a time, I suffered more than I can describe. There I was, in the deep woods, sick and emaciated, pursued by a wretch whose character for revolting cruelty beggars all opprobrious speech—bleeding and almost bloodless. I was not without the fear of bleeding to death. The thought of dying in the woods, all alone, and of being torn to pieces by the buzzards, had not yet been rendered tolerable by my many troubles and hardships, and I was glad when the shade of the trees, and the cool evening breeze, combined with my matted hair to stop the flow of blood.
Any style which protests its own inadequacy so insistently, as Douglass does in the second extract, can hardly impress the reader with its sureness and control. The 1855 version takes nearly twice as many words to cover the same ground. The elaborate diction and syntax of the latter passage, coupled with its manipulative appeals to sentiment, are characteristic of Douglass' swelling style in the 1850s. They helped to make him a great orator but they become a liability in simple prose narration.
There are marks of haste in the composition of My Bondage and My Freedom which flaw the form of the book. While the section on slave experience is padded and verbose (e.g. the fight with Covey loses its sharp decisiveness), the coverage of Douglass' career in the North is choppy and fragmented. One surmises that it was assembled rapidly out of available materials. Portions of letters, speeches, and extracts from the press are incorporated into the text. Episodes are strung together without much continuity. Following the rather brief chapters on his life between 1845 and 1855, eight of Douglass' best public statements from that decade are reprinted. The content is valuable but the form of the autobiography has virtually disintegrated.
Twenty-six years passed before Douglass issued another version of his life's story. He rewrote the last sections of My Bondage and My Freedom and added much new material to cover the intervening period. Comparative looseness in both style and structure is more apparent than ever in the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, first published in 1881. More than a hundred pages were added to an expanded edition issued in 1892. Two aspects of Douglass' last book are of interest to the discussion of literary merit among his various autobiographies. One is the retrospective, anticlimactic cast to the work. The other is the symbolic relationship between its form and the pattern of Douglass' whole life.
Douglass' Life and Times suffers from being an example of the fat volume of memoirs that public men so often produce at the end of a busy career. The bulk and weight of the narrative are made heavier by the retrospective and funereal mood which pervades the text. The author is looking back, not forward. There is no last triumph or peak in his life. Instead there is only the inevitable point at which it finally runs out. The great moments of Douglass' story came relatively early. He recognized this mid-way through Life and Times.
My great and exceeding joy over these stupendous achievements, especially over the abolition of slavery (which had been the deepest desire and the great labor of my life), was slightly tinged with a feeling of sadness.
I felt that I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life.
Most of the rest is anti-climax, however interesting and valuable to the history of black men in America. It may be unfair to Douglass' notable and energetic labors but his account of the post-war decades often becomes a slow-paced farewell address. Most of his old friends (and enemies) are dead. There are profuse tributes and eulogies for his comrades-in-arms from the bright, distant, early years when the struggle against slavery was a dangerous adventure. The tone and thrust of his Narrative partake of that early excitement, anger, and expectation. Nothing remains to look forward to in Life and Times. The battles are over and an old warrior seeks rest.
Reconciliation replaces partisan fervor and moral outrage as the dominant note in the narrative. The reader encounters an extraordinary scene when the aged Frederick Douglass, then United States Marshall for the District of Columbia, goes back after fifty-six years to revisit the plantation where he grew up a slave. He returns at the invitation of his old master, Thomas Auld, with whom he holds a friendly conversation as the exslaver lies on his death-bed. No enmity remains. The brutal reality of slavery, so insistent in the opening pages of the book, has faded away, as has the tough, truth-telling prose which makes Douglass' presentation in his Narrative so impressive and compelling.
The symbolic parallels between the telling of Douglass' life and the living of it are stronger in Life and Times than in previous accounts. The cluttered and fragmentary narrative mirrors the crammed schedule and frequent travel of his public career. Chunks of speeches, articles, and letters fill the text, specimens of his handiwork from the years under review. After such long and difficult efforts to improve the situation of Afro-Americans, Douglass cannot close with a report of wide success. Though emancipated, blacks at the end of the century remained unequal and were losing ground. The country no longer responded to crusades on behalf of Negroes. Whites ignored Douglass, who seemed an anachronism. Life and Times did not sell well. Its publishers told Douglass in 1889 that, though they had "pushed and repushed" the book, sales had been poor since "interest in the days of slavery was not as great as we expected." The failure of Life and Times, both in its appeal to the public and in its uncertain, faltering form, duplicated the frustration and inconclusiveness of Douglass' struggles in 1880s and 1890s when America broke its promises to the ex-slaves and tried to forget about its racial problems.
In personal terms, Douglass rose in status and fortune through the last years of his life. He received patronage jobs in return for political services rendered. Inevitably, in recounting this personal success, an annoying note of self-gratulation spreads through his narration. Much of Douglass' advancement was due to his fierce, unquestioning loyalty to the Republican Party. He insisted that the party was the deck, all else was the sea. Election after election, Douglass took the stump on behalf of the Republicans. He clung to Grant and the Stalwarts despite scandals and independent reform movements. (He wanted a third term for Grant!) Douglass backed the grab for Santo Domingo even when his good friend Summer condemned it. In return, Douglass was appointed to the President's Commission which visited the island. It is sad to see the brave Abolitionist and bold reformer reduced to a party wheel-horse, and for such a party as the Republicans in the Gilded Age. This devotion to partisan politics gives the latter part of Douglass' Life and Times much the same flavor as the memoirs of party leaders like James Blaine or John Sherman. The moral appeal and personal integrity so evident during the anti-slavery fight are obscured and the author's good character seems diminished.
More damaging than Douglass' political activity is the degree to which he absorbed and expounded the philosophy of the triumphant Republican Party. He echoed the businessman's laissez-faire ethos all too readily. It was not by accident that Douglass' most popular lecture was called "Self-Made Men." As he noted in Life and Times, "I have sometimes been credited with having been the architect of my own fortune, and have pretty generally received the title of 'self-made man.'" In a manner remarkably similar to Booker T. Washington, he argued for self-help and vocational training, seeming to belittle the role of governmental protection for the rights of Afro-Americans. The concluding paragraphs of his 1881 text are a homily on success, stressing the familiar Puritan virtues. "I have urged upon them self-reliance, self-respect, industry, perseverence, and economy." Little wonder that Alain Locke described Life and Times as "a sort of Negro edition of Ben Franklin." Douglass' subservience to commercial and Republican ideals was denounced toward the end of his life by young blacks who harked back to the candor and scorn of his early years. As a Harvard graduate student in 1891, W.E.B. DuBois deplored the cowardice of current Negro leadership, including Douglass. He charged that blacks had only a "time-server for our Moses and a temporizer who is afraid to call a lie a lie."
Is Frederick Douglass' life best seen as a darker version of the traditional American success story? Or was DuBois right to criticize the misleading emphasis on personal aggrandizement and material satisfaction which arises from the rags-to-riches myth? The contest over the emblematic value of Douglass' career is central to any interpretation of him. With encouragement from his Life and Times, many commentators have chosen to puff Douglass' achievements in rising from humble origins to a high station in public life. Saunders Redding calls the third autobiography "the most American of American life stories. . . . The story develops the dramatic theme from bondage to the council tables of a great nation." Rayford Logan goes further; Douglass became
. . . advisor to President Lincoln and the diplomatic representative of the United States to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Hence, this narrative of his life has inspired Negroes and other disadvantaged Americans to believe that, despite the imperfections of American democracy, a self-made man may aspire to greatness.
Here is precisely the danger of such an interpretation. Douglass' life cannot be permitted to serve as just another encomium to the virtue and upward mobility of American society. Harder truths and grimmer lessons are to be seen in it.
There is also a nobler theme, a more universal meaning to the best of Douglass' autobiographical writing. Alain Locke said of his career and character that they "take on more and more the structure and significance of the epical." The success motif lies deep in Douglass' example but it is best embodied in the earliest impulse of his life. Just as his compact escape narrative is far better written than any of its sprawling successors, so the truest epic for Frederick Douglass is not to see him as a black Horatio Alger hero but as a splendid enactment of man's perennial struggle to be free.
Donald B. Gibson (essay date 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7734
SOURCE: "Reconciling Public and Private in Frederick Douglass' Narrative," in American Literature, Vol. 57, No. 4, December, 1985, pp. 549-69.
[In the following essay, Gibson investigates the intersection of Douglass's public and private personas in the Narrative, commenting on the qualities of balance and restraint that inform both.]
By common consent Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) is recognized as the best among the many slave narratives that appeared with increasing frequency during the years preceding the Civil War. There are many reasons why Douglass' narrative so clearly stands above the others, chief among them being that Douglass possesses talents, sensitivity, and intellectual capacity superior to those belonging to most people. His experience with written and spoken language by the time he wrote the autobiography has something to do with the quality of Douglass' work. Certainly he modified and polished his style as he improved the addresses he delivered to abolitionist gatherings beginning in August 1841. His account is a better one because it is rehearsed, and he has without doubt mulled over its facts and phases, scenes and phrases, during the years prior to its recording. His narrative, however, is not superior simply for aesthetic reasons, because it is more polished than the others; it is better in large measure because Douglass, more than any other author of a slave narrative, is able and committed at once to articulate and mediate between the fact of the existence of slavery in a Christian, democratic society and state and the facts of his life as felt and understood by the person Frederick Douglass.
The result of such commitment in the autobiography is a dual focus: one, public and social, setting forth to correct the moral and political ills arising from the fact of slavery; the other, personal and private, expressing Douglass' own thoughts, feelings, reactions, and emotions. The social (also public, political, and objective) focus is that which presents the first twenty-one years of the life of Frederick Douglass in such manner as to allow it to serve as a weapon in the arsenal of abolitionism. The public perspective is the one traditionally recognized by nineteenth-century commentators such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both of whom wrote prefatory material to the Narrative, and some earlier twentieth-century scholars such as Vernon Loggins and Benjamin Quarles. Loggins believes that Douglass' "sole purpose in writing his autobiography was to produce antislavery propaganda." Quarles, addressing the question whether Douglass' facts can be trusted, stresses the issue of subjectivity and the expression of personal vision: "Douglass' treatment of slavery in the Narrative may be almost as much the revelation of a personality as it is the description of an institution." This speculation is not, however, pursued. Douglass himself has the political perspective in mind when he says in the final paragraph of the autobiography, "From that time [the time of his first major oration] until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren." That the public dimension should call such attention to itself is not surprising since there is not a single sentence, not a single word in the Narrative that does not relate to it.
The private dimension of the Narrative comprises Douglass' specific and personal responses to and perceptions of his experience. Obviously Douglass is not Everyman—not even Everyblackman. On the contrary Douglass is a unique, unusually intelligent, and talented man, one whose relation to experience could not possibly be identical to anyone else's. Very many slaves were separated from their mothers at an early age, but that happened specifically to Frederick Douglass and its meaning for us is realized (made real) by his articulation of that fact. Throughout his narrative Douglass uses his personal experience of slavery to lend authority to whatever observations or judgments are to be made about the abstraction "slavery." Even when it is not clear whether he actually witnessed an event or heard it told (as in the case of the slaying of his wife's cousin, or the old man who is killed "fishing for oysters") it is fairly obvious that he perceives it as actual, and hence it carries the weight of fact. Nearly all the events of the Narrative are presented as having been directly experienced. The private dimension omits, however, some aspects of Douglass' experience, and what is omitted is probably determined by factors such as relevance to the public focus and decorum. We know little, for example, from his narrative about his courtship of Anna Murray beyond the fact of its occurring; we know few of the particulars of his friendships; and we know nothing about his sexuality. We do learn about his psychological and emotional maturation, a most private and personal matter, but only because, as we shall later see, that matter relates closely to the public focus.
In one sense the two perspectives are perpetually at war; in another they work together, one supporting and lending authority and significance to the other. Douglass the rational, anti-slavery partisan and Douglass the man whose historical, social, and psychological pasts cannot be entirely contained within the abstraction "slavery" often vie for control of the narration, because a strategy of Douglass is to present himself as one whose character, intelligence, and manner hardly belong to one who could by any stretch of the imagination be defined as "slave." Douglass' strong, unique, commanding presence, his cool and controlled narration threaten to usurp the narrative. The personality of the narrator seeks a larger role than the public purpose of the book can allow (as when he steps outside the "circle" of slavery to explain the meaning of slave songs). Meanwhile, the public perspective aims to dominate, to suppress all about the narrator except his representative qualities, to play down any suggestion that Douglass is a special case, "a slave among slaves" (as Booker T. Washington significantly titles the first chapter of Up from Slavery).
More often than not, however, the two perspectives work together and are, indeed, incapable of separation. The first chapter of the Narrative reveals the relation between the perspectives, a relation to be sustained throughout the narration until the end where they are forever melded into one. The Narrative begins, "I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their age as horses know theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not ever remember to have met a slave who could tell of his birthday." The first two sentences are statements of fact specifically about the person Frederick Douglass and thus express the private focus. The third sentence generalizes from the first two, its abstract meaning based upon Douglass' particular experience. As generalization and abstraction it expresses the public focus; its full meaning, however, depends upon its grounding in the facts of Douglass' life preceding it. The fourth sentence is a personal statement emanating from the private perspective, repeating and buttressing the truth of the generalization again by placing it within the confines of his own experience. Here the two perspectives are not at war but rather mutually supportive, for the complete meaning even of the factuality of the first two sentences depends upon their contextual meaning. The passage continues, "A want of information concerning my own [birthday] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege." The passage, expressive of the private focus in that it directly concerns the private, inner feelings of the narrator, implies the public focus, for underlying the statement is the narrator's knowledge that readers will share his belief that one should be able to tell one's age. No proper, just or moral system, the logic runs, deprives humans of the knowledge of the dates of their birth; I am human; therefore. . . . The statement expresses the private perspective; its logic expresses the public. The two are again melded, though logically separable.
The same balancing strategy obtains again when Douglass writes about his separation from his mother, the personal statement of biographical fact balanced by its generalized meaning in the context of slavery.
My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of the land from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor .. . I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.
Note that the passage begins with the personal perspective, generalizes about practices during slavery, then returns to a personal vantage point. This practice prevails throughout most of the Narrative, its function being two-fold: to sustain balance between the public and private focus; and to ground abstractions about the evils of slavery in the specific, concrete experience of one person, thus rendering the argument more vivid and more convincing than abstract discourse alone could likely make it. The method is analogous to some grand metaphor: the tenor, slavery; the vehicle, the facts of Douglass' life. Thoreau's method in Walden is similar in that he constantly moves back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, between the particularities of his own experiences and the wider implications generated therefrom.
Such strategies are not uncommon in slave narratives, the difference being that Douglass is so intensely engaged in the abolitionist cause that he could not for a moment allow his story to give way to adventure for adventure's sake, adventure intended to entertain readers; he could not allow a plot to govern the rendition of his narrative except in the most general way. Douglass moves from slavery to freedom, but his emphasis is far more on the psychological journey than on the physical one. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is an accurate title in that it points to the broad span of his life, most of which was spent in slavery, rather than to the escape itself, which, it becomes clear, is not the central issue. Douglass was himself aware of this emphasis as he makes clear in the final version of the autobiography, Life and Times. "The abolition of slavery in my native State and throughout the country, and the lapse of time, render the caution hitherto observed [of not revealing his means of escape] no longer necessary. But even since the abolition of slavery, I have sometimes thought it well enough to baffle curiosity by saying that while slavery existed there were good reasons for not telling the manner of my escape, and since slavery had ceased to exist there was no reason for telling it." His lack of interest in entertaining or satisfying the curious has a clear and definite effect on the form of the autobiography.
The Narrative has only one climax, though it might be expected to have two—one internal, the other external; one in which the narrator undergoes some psychological transformation, the other in which he projects into the world through action the results of his transformation. One of these climaxes expresses the private focus of the narrative (taking place, as it does, within the psyche of the narrator); the other public, an objective, historical event. The true climax of the autobiography is the private, psychological one, explicitly revealing the formation on Douglass' part of a new consciousness, a different awareness and sense of self, and a firm resolve for the future. The other potential climax of the action, the one which should show the glorious passage of the narrator from slavery to freedom, does not occur. In other words the private perspective of the Narrative holds sway insofar as the plot is concerned. How can this be if the work is a "weapon in the arsenal of abolitionism"?
Douglass' explanation of why he conceals his mode of escape—that telling how he escaped would increase the danger to others using that means—is quite reasonable. He reveals it in the final version of his autobiography, as noted above, but there in the context of nearly the whole span of Douglass' life (or nearly so) it cannot begin to have the impact and meaning that it would have had in the context of the Narrative alone. Its dramatic significance is drastically diminished. That the lapse of time has decreased the sense of its importance is reflected in Douglass' reluctance (even when the information can have no negative effect on anyone) to fill in the details of his actual escape. In any event, if one seeks the central episode of the work, attention is immediately drawn to the psychological center whose character is such that we might well wonder whether Douglass' expressed motives for deemphasizing the external, public center were indeed the only ones. Here it is significant to note that the most frequently anthologized part of the Narrative is the section depicting Douglass' struggle with Covey. There are several compelling reasons for believing that Douglass wished—indeed fully intended—to give this episode the intense emphasis that it has. Douglass might have revealed in his account of his fight with Covey the most important thing he had to say about slavery and freedom.
In chapter 10 Douglass declares himself free after the contest with Covey, a contest from which Douglass does not emerge so much victorious as undefeated (a distinction to be developed later). At this point, after Covey has made it clear that the conflict is terminated, Douglass declares himself free: "It was a glorious resurrection from the tomb of slavery to the heaven of freedom." Since Douglass does not escape until 1838, four years later, his declaration of freedom is meaningful only in its psychological sense, but the narrative emphasis implies, however, that his psychological sense of being free is more meaningful than his actual escape North. The point is that once he is psychologically free the escape itself is a matter of course. The issue is more fully articulated in Life and Times where Douglass makes an astounding statement about his condition: "I was no longer a servile coward, trembling under the frown of a brother worm of the dust, but my long-cowed spirit was roused to an attitude of independence. I had reached the point at which I was not afraid to die. This spirit made me a freeman in fact, though I still remained a slave in form. When a slave cannot be flogged he is more than half free" (Douglass' emphases). If Douglass considers himself "more than half free," then is it any wonder that his actual escape would be other than anticlimactic? The same sentiment is expressed in the Narrative in less expanded form, "My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact."
Astoundingly he announces himself a free man in "fact" despite being held in slavery for the next four years. His enslavement is a matter of form. A person is a slave, then, not when his body is held captive but when his psyche is not his own, when his self does not belong to him, when he does not exert resistance against those who would define him. Being a slave "in fact" has to do with one's attitude toward one's condition. Such is suggested in the contemporary narrative of The Fugitive Blacksmith or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington (1849). Pennington, the minister who married Douglass and Anna Murray in 1838, describes his response after he observes his owner give Pennington's father an extremely brutal lashing: "Although it was some time after this event before I took the decisive step, yet in my mind and spirit, I never was a Slave after it." In any case, even if the distinction is not peculiar to Douglass, it places a heavy emphasis on the role of psychological disposition in determining one's status as slave or free. We might wonder whether the definition rests upon a public or private criterion. Is one free because one feels free, or is one free because law, custom and circumstance say so? Douglass' Narrative raises this question.
His year's sojourn at Covey's finds Douglass in a less than happy situation. For the first time he is a field hand. His daily work is grueling, and he is brutalized beyond measure, working six days a week, from at least sunrise to sundown, and sometimes into the night.
He is severely beaten so frequently that his back is never free from acute pain. His psychological condition matches the physical.
If at any one time of my life more than another I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!
He is clearly at the nadir of his life. Ill, unable to rise from the ground, brutally kicked in the side by Covey, struck on the head with a barrel stave and bleeding from the blow, Douglass has no external recourse, no awareness of an internal one; he must finally face the dreaded Covey alone, lacking even the consolation of religion and scarcely confident that the magical root given him by his fellow slave Sandy will aid him. At this juncture he must either accept Covey's punishment, thereby finally confirming his status as "animal" or "brute," or he must seek to change his status. To seek change, to confront Covey and avert domination is to risk public flogging, maiming, or even death. Covey's wide reputation as a "nigger breaker," coupled with the fact that Douglass is under his control, means that he is not opposing an ordinary owner or overseer; it is as though he faces the archfiend himself, not as a representative slave but as Frederick Douglass, private person.
The idea that Douglass conceives of Covey as the devil and his circumstance as religious and mythological in its dimensions is not as farfetched as it might seem if we note the terms in which he describes Covey.
He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, "the snake."
He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael's, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves.
Mr. Covey's forte consisted in his power to deceive. His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions. Everything he possessed in the shape of learning or religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive. He seemed to think himself equal to deceiving the Almighty.
In order that we comprehend the full meaning of his conflict with Covey, Douglass must make it known that his antagonist is not simply any overseer who is cruel and unsympathetic to the slaves in his charge. Covey's dimensions are larger; and the larger Covey's dimensions, the better we understand the significance in Douglass' own mind of his feat in coming to terms with him. Undoubtedly Douglass did see Covey as larger than life in that the overseer embodies at once the authority of the whole slave system, of all whites, especially males, and in his character, attitudes, and actions the very worst features of slavery. The outcome of the struggle produced "a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom." The effect of the struggle with Covey the archfiend is to bring Douglass back from the dead and to propel him into heaven—again suggesting something of the religious and mythological scope of his conception of his circumstances.
Psychologically, Douglass' conflict with Covey is a private and personal trial whose outcome will determine whether Douglass has earned, through exercise of strength and courage, the prerogatives belonging to free, adult, white males in his society. He is, significantly enough, sixteen years old, physically mature, and wavering in his feeling about whether he is child or adult. His sense of his maturational state is associated in his mind with his being or not being a slave: adults are free; children are "bound to someone." The tension is explicit; the poles of his dilemma clearly and openly expressed.
God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as with fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. . . . Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to someone.
To confront his worst fears, and the sense of his greatest limitations, embodied in the person of Covey, and to emerge whole from that confrontation means to him the achievement of manhood, the right to governance of his mind and spirit. In his statement prefatory to the encounter he explicitly says so: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." The terms in which Douglass describes his sense of his new circumstances and situation are those usually associated with the achievement in western culture of adult male status: "My long crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place. .. . I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." The voice here is the authoritative voice of the narrator of the Narrative, the private voice, the "I," and what that voice says belongs specifically to him, not to any public person or figure or entity. At least that voice belongs first to Douglass the person, though reference to broader elements of culture sets that voice in a public context.
It is of significance that Douglass chooses to cast this highly private experience in more public terms. That is, in grounding his experience in western religious and mythological traditions, Douglass transforms that experience to "public" experience insofar as a culture belongs to all who exist in it. The components of culture have reference both to group and individual, public and private experience. Something of this sort of grounding occurs when Douglass makes reference on more than one occasion to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The private is objectified, made analogous to some facet of western culture, and rendered, consequently, public.
Douglass knew the play by the time he wrote the Narrative, a fact we may infer from his quoting from it in chapter 10. Further, when we look back at the Narrative, it is probable that Douglass has Hamlet in mind when he speaks of the wavering he and his friends experience when thinking about whether to attempt escape: "At times we were almost disposed to give up, and try to content ourselves with our wretched lot; at others, we were firm and unbending in our determination to go. Whenever we suggested any plan, there was shrinking—the odds were fearful. Our path was beset with the greatest obstacles; and if we succeeded in gaining the end of it, our right to be free was yet questionable—we were yet liable to be returned to bondage."
Douglass invokes Hamlet (and Genesis) when he questions the value of knowlege, of rationality, and of life itself. He is fully aware of the connection between Hamlet and Genesis. He knows that knowledge may be a burden, a curse even, and that a lack of consciousness may have its value.
I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it.
I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed.
Douglass would have had these thoughts and feelings had he not read Hamlet; but I would argue that he found in the play correlatives mirroring his own sense of himself and his situation. Surely Hamlet's line, "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I," would have caught Douglass' eye; he would almost without question see the analogy, as well as the fact that while for Hamlet the thought that he is a slave is metaphorical, for Douglass it is literal. I doubt that Douglass would have written the following lines had he not read the play. They refer to the plot to escape in chapter 10, ".. . we had talked long enough; we were now ready to move; if not now, we never should be; and if we did not intend to move now, we had as well fold our arms, sit down, and acknowledge ourselves fit only to be slaves."
His physical conflict with Covey leading to his proclamation of freedom, and to his setting right his world just as Hamlet set his right, needs be understood in terms of the peculiarity of its conduct. Throughout the course of the combat Douglass is entirely on the defensive. His intention, unlike that of the combatant in an ordinary conflict, is not to destroy, defeat, or even injure his opponent but to prevent Covey's flogging him. This may be inferred from the Narrative; it is explicitly clear in My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times: "Every blow of his was parried though I dealt no blows in return. I was strictly on the defensive, preventing him from injuring me, rather than trying to injure him." Hence he strikes no blows against Covey; rather he wards them off and attempts to hold his opponent in such a way that Covey cannot strike him. The Narrative implies this fact but does not make it explicit as do the later descriptions. Once one understands what the later descriptions say, the implications of the Narrative description of the encounter are clear. "I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose. He held on to me, and I to him. My resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey seemed taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf. This gave me assurance, and I held him uneasy, causing the blood to run where I touched him with the ends of my fingers." The remarkable thing about his battle is Douglass' extraordinary control. He seizes Covey by the throat but allows himself to squeeze only so hard. When Covey attempts to pick up a stick to hit him, Douglass brings him "by a sudden snatch to the ground"—but "harmlessly," Bondage and Freedom tells us. The agon continues for nearly two hours, and Douglass remains in a completely defensive posture during the whole time (except when he kicks Covey's young cousin in the genitals when he attempts to intervene on Covey's behalf), so much in control of his passions as to suppress great hatred, fear, and anger.
Most commentators on the conflict have not understood the real nature of the fight and have interpreted it as though it were an arena boxing match. Such an interpretation distorts the scene itself and skews our perspective on the whole narrative. Douglass' victory is won not because he beats Covey but because he thwarts Covey's intention to beat him. Failure to understand this distinction leads to the reader's misperception of the basic nature of Douglass' character. In his biography of Douglass, Booker T. Washington reports: "Douglass flew at Covey's throat recklessly, hurled his antagonist to the ground, and held him firmly." This report is not substantiated by any of the three accounts of the encounter. Benjamin Quarles, the noted historian, turns fictionist in writing that "one day, steeled by desperation, the goaded youth soundly thrashed Covey." Another even more imaginative commentator describing the battle writes, "Frightened by that time lest he be worsted by his infuriated slave, Covey took the fight out into the cow-yard with Douglass meeting every blow with a better one." Yet another reporter describes what happens in this way: "In the course of the fight, Douglass whipped Covey's cousin Hughes, stimulated two other slaves to disobey orders, and knocked Covey full-length into a pasture of cow dung." Why is the episode so consistently and universally misinterpreted? The answer is clear and simple. Critics have seen only the public focus of a narrative such as Douglass' which requires that the slave defeat the slaveholder, thus obscuring the private perspective.
Seeing both the public and private dimensions of Douglass' experience, one may realize that the conflict between them mirrors a conflict within Douglass himself between the aggressive impulse to strike against the monster and an alternative impulse not to strike at all. The dynamic of the relation may have some connection with Douglass' identification of his situation with Hamlet's in that Douglass also finds it impossible to reconcile thought and action. Douglass' ruminations suggest this connection.
Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot.
I was fast approaching manhood, and year after year had passed, and I was still a slave. These thoughts roused me—I must do something.
At times we were almost disposed to give up, and try to content ourselves with our wretched lot; at others, we were firm and unbending in our determination to go.
These conflicting feelings reflect the central metaphor of the whole of the Narrative: Douglass presses his fingers around Covey's throat, squeezing, but only so hard—squeezing defensively. This typifies Douglass' character and action throughout the Narrative from its beginning to its end, as well as the work itself in its style, tone, plot, and mood. A controlled aggression prevails. He watches, during the four years following the conflict, waiting for his opportunity to move. He hovers with care, not faintheartedly but with firm resolve and meticulously modulated self-control. Never directly aggressive, he is sometimes intentionally provocative, and whereas he never initiates physical confrontation with his owners, overseers, or other whites, he stands by his decision to defend himself, to the death if necessary, against physical abuse.
The balance, reflective of an extraordinarily strong will and character, is taxing and delicate. Douglass cannot allow these warring tendencies to split asunder, for he cannot run away before the opportune moment, nor can he restrain himself to such an extent that action is not possible. The nexus between the impulse to strike out against his oppressor, to run away, to be free, and the quality of character which checks that impulse is the source of the control informing the Narrative and in turn the source of its style. The style of Douglass' account is objective in the sense that its rhetorical form and its diction blunt the effect of direct, personal expression of emotion. This is not to deny that the Narrative is expressive of emotion; rather, the style is such that it tends to create distance between the writer and the reader because of the high formality of the syntax, sentence structure, and diction, and because of the narrator's tendency to understate. The tone is strictly controlled throughout, the events and episodes rendered in such a way as to suggest their factuality. The effect is of disparity between the subject of the narration and the underlying actuality of the experience. Straightforward rendition gives the most horrendous descriptions of physical brutality an understated quality. Note, for example, the relatively objective description of Douglass' first beating by Covey:
He then went to a large gum tree and with his axe cut three large switches, and after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes. I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on. He repeated his order. I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself. Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after. This whipping was the first of a number just like it and for similar offenses.
The omission of reference to his emotional response, to description of the pain, or even to what Douglass was doing or thinking during the beating has the effect of objectivity and understatement. The reader is thus invited to supply from the resources of his own imagination the missing currents of thought and feeling. This may all be retraced to the antithetical impulses within Douglass projected in his description of his fight with Covey: his fingers are around the tyrant's throat, yet he squeezes only so hard. This control and restraint, standing in opposition to the deep psychological impulses driving him toward maturity and autonomy, and suggestive of the private dimension of Douglass' life and his narrative, reflect a remarkable balance of attitude and emotion, a balance which dictates the style of the Narrative.
In form the style is very much influenced by contemporary oratorical practice. One of his earliest readers, The Columbian Orator, was his introduction to oratory, and he tells us that he read its contents "over and over again with unabated interest." Of course by the time he wrote the Narrative he would have listened to and delivered scores of speeches in the contemporary manner. His writing style is certainly influenced by an oratorical style of speech making. Loggins points out [in The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900, 1931]: "In his autobiographical account as in everything else he wrote, Douglass seems to be speaking from the platform. His genius lay in his passion for meeting an antagonistic public with the spoken word.
All of his writing is in the spirit of spontaneous and racy and stirring oratory." In agreeing with Loggins ("When he wrote his narrative, it was heavily influenced by his training in rhetoric") Frances Foster refutes O'Meally's argument that Douglass' style was significantly influenced by black pulpit oratory. O'Meally, in identifying features which he relates to the rhetoric of the black pulpit tradition, merely sees characteristics which black pulpit rhetoric and traditional speech making rhetoric share. Douglass' description of his life and his articulation of his values suggest that he would not conceivably have addressed an audience in the manner of the black preacher because he had no identification with that tradition.
The syntactical balance of Douglass' style has been noted, and that probably stems from the same source as the balance of Douglass' account of the conditions of slavery. He makes significant distinctions among his various experiences as a slave, telling what was good and bad, painting a picture of variegated colors and hues. He is not attempting to placate an audience lacking entire sympathy with his cause as, Foster tells us, many narrators do. According to Foster [in Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives, 1979], "Their narratives show great efforts to appease without neutralizing their position. It became almost axiomatic that for every two or three bad experiences related, one good experience must be recounted." Douglass is also not attempting to be "fair" since the system of slavery has for him no redeeming qualities. Rather, he expresses his capacity to make judgments about himself, about his circumstances as a slave, about each of his owners and overseers, about the system of slavery itself, and about the environment in which it functions. He clearly distinguishes among all those under whose authority he finds himself, telling in no uncertain terms when he is fed well and when he goes hungry or has insufficient time to eat; when he is treated kindly and when dealt with brutally. He even distinguishes degrees of kindness or ill treatment. In a work devoted to the abolition of slavery, it is remarkable to read: "While at Baltimore I got few whippings, and few slaves could boast of a kinder master and mistress than myself." On a number of occasions Douglass speaks favorably of slave owners: "Master William Hamilton, my master's father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat. I never left there hungry." And again, "The year passed smoothly. . . . I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master" (Douglass' emphasis). At one point he compares the lot of the city slave with that of his plantation counterpart.
A city slave is almost a freeman compared with a slave on a plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his nonslaveholding neighbor with the cries of his lacerated slave. Few are willing to incur the odiom attaching to the reputation of being a cruel master; and above all things, they would not be known as not giving a slave enough to eat.
The quotation begins with a judgment, particularizes the statement in the next sentence, draws an inference from the preceding particularizing sentence, then in the final two sentences supports the inference through particularization. In other words Douglass makes the judgment, tells in what ways the judgment is true, then tells why the initial judgment is true and sound. These other assessments Douglass makes of his circumstances, slave owners, overseers, and the system of slavery itself are an essential element of the Narrative in that Douglass asserts through his delivery of judgments that he has the capacity, unacknowledged in slaves, to judge his former owners and the system which allowed him to be held captive. He judges as an equal and by reference to the standards of morality and conduct embodied in Christianity and professedly held in the slaveholding region, and at the same time he asserts his capacity to exercise one of the highest functions of consciousness: the rendering of judicious distinctions, a capacity literally earned through his "victory" over Covey.
Because Douglass is aware of the relation between knowledge and judgment, knowledge and knowing are prominent themes throughout his narrative. Because of Douglass' explicit awareness that knowledge forms the basis of sound judgment, the chief emphasis of the text as a whole falls on knowledge and knowing, for insofar as the text itself constitutes in its entirety a complex judgment on Douglass' part, knowledge is the basis of that judgment. The first chapter of the Narrative demonstrates the role of knowledge in the text. Its point is to tell the reader what Douglass knows. The first two pages contain at least twenty explicit references to knowledge or knowing. Lines 3, 5, 6, 29, 30, 31, 39, and 43 use the word. "Who could tell" in line 8 means who "knew." "Want of information" in line 10 means "lack of knowledge." "I could not tell" in line 13 means "I did not know." "Ignorant" in line 7 means of course "without knowledge." Learning to read means so much to him because it allows Douglass to expand his knowledge, heighten his consciousness, and therefore be in a position to render judgment. "The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men."
Viewed from this perspective, the fight with Covey takes on new significance. Covey's discipline, Douglass tells us, has left him "broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!" Douglass believes himself transformed into a brute because his "intellect languished" and he no longer desired to read, suggesting that he is no longer able to exercise the higher functions of consciousness, and in his "dream" or "stupor" is in a nonconscious state. The result of the encounter with Covey is to restore Douglass to his former state of consciousness, allowing him once again to exercise its higher functions of reasoning, reflecting, judging. The reference to Covey as snake, a submerged reference (as suggested above) to the myth of the garden of Eden, is apt, for just as the serpent leads Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and allows them to be as the gods (to make intellectual distinctions, to reason, to know and to judge), so does Covey make that possible for Douglass. In fairytale and mythology the relation between the hero's transformation and the exercise of the functions of higher consciousness is rarely as clear as in this true-to-life autobiography. Usually the hero wins some symbol representing one aspect or another of the new state—a mate (symbolic of the sexual prerogatives of adulthood) or treasure (symbolizing the adult power and authority stemming from the possession of wealth). In his narrative Douglass' prize is literal and not symbolic at all (except in an extended sense of the meaning of "symbolic"). Douglass literally wins back the capacity to read, to learn, to think, to know, to judge, to articulate. Interestingly enough, though, this process is undergone by one Frederick Douglass, private person. Surely it is not in the interests of abolitionism to suggest or even imply that every slave need experience this particular pattern of psychological development in order to be free. But this apparent paradox may not be paradoxical at all. His point may be that in being free one need not choose to be either a private or a public person: one may alternately be one or the other or both at once. The end of the Narrative would suggest this idea.
On the final page of the Narrative Douglass describes his feelings prior to his first major anti-slavery speech before a large, white audience. His feelings are not unlike those he experienced much earlier when he was deciding whether to remain a slave or attempt to be free. "It [the decision to speak or not] was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren.. . ." Essentially here he reenacts his struggle with Covey and resolves the tension between the public and private roles: Douglass feels he is a slave, that the truth of his primary identity resides in the abstraction "slave." The "cross" he refers to is the tension between the social definition that he feels a white audience places on him and his own markedly different, private sense of who he is. In conflict with his private sense that he is a slave is an impulse to assume the public role. The private sense and the public sense of his identity merge as he begins to speak and by his very utterance deny the validity of his feeling that he is a slave. Because he has battled Covey successfully, he may speak, for he has earned the right to exercise the functions of higher consciousness. His words, we may well imagine, are carefully chosen in this his first major oration, and his sentences are measured. His restraint is that exercised when he held his fingers around Covey's throat squeezing only so hard. He does not say directly what his first words were, but we as careful readers of his text know them: "I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland."
John Sekora (essay date 1985)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4218
SOURCE: "Comprehending Slavery: Language and Personal History in Douglass' Narrative of 1845," in CLA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 2, December, 1985, pp. 157-70.
[In the following essay, Sekora argues that Douglass's Narrative is not simply autobiography, but rather the "first comprehensive, personal history of American slavery."]
The author is therefore the more willing—nay, anxious, to lay alongside of such (pro-slavery) arguments the history of his own life and experiences as a slave, that those who read may know what are some of the characteristics of that highly favored institution, which is sought to be preserved and perpetuated.
Because it is one of the most important books ever published in America, Frederick Douglass' Narrative of 1845 has justly received much attention. That attention has been increasing for a generation at a rate parallel to the growth in interest in autobiography as a literary genre, and the Narrative as autobiography has been the subject of several influential studies. Without denying the insights of such studies, I should like to suggest that in 1845 Douglass had no opportunity to write what (since the eighteenth century) we would call autobiography, that the achievement of the Narrative lies in another form.
Elsewhere I have argued the uniqueness of the antebellum slave narrative as an American literary form, a signal feature of which is the conditions under which it was printed. Briefly put, eighteenth-century narratives like those of Hammon, Gronniosaw, and Equiano were published only when they could be fitted to such familiar patterns as the captivity tale or the tale of religious conversion. In the abolitionist period when slavery was the central issue, once again printers and editors determined the overall shape of the narrative. Lundy, Garrison, Tappan, and Weld sought to expunge a vile institution, not support individualized Afro-American life stories. They had set the language of abolition—its vocabulary as well as social attitudes and philosophical presuppositions—in place by the early 1830s. Former slaves were wanted primarily as lecturers, later as authors, not for their personal identities as men and women, but for their value as eyewitnesses and victims. (It was significant to Douglass that his white associates tended to see slaves as passive victims.)
Against these conditions, one must place current conceptions of autobiography. Traditionalists and poststructuralists seem to agree that autobiography comes into being when recollection engages memory. Recollection engages people, things, events that at first appear fragmented and unrelated. As an essential part of its activity, recollection brings sequence and/or relation to the enormous diversity of individual experience; it emplois the stages of the subject's journey to selfhood. Meaning emerges when events are connected as parts of a coherent and comprehensive whole. Meaning, relation, and wholeness are but three facets of one characteristic: a narrative self that is more a literary creation than a literal, preexisting fact. The self of autobiography comes into being in the act of writing, not before. This said, the contrast with the antebellum narrative is apparent. From Hammon's Narrative of 1760 to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in 1861, the explicit purpose of the slave narrative is far different from the creation of a self, and the overarching shape of that story—the facts to be included and the ordering of those facts—is mandated by persons other than the subject. Not black recollection, but white interrogation brings order to the narration. For eighteenth-century narratives the self that emerges is a preexisting form, deriving largely from evangelical Protestantism. For the abolitionist period, the self is a type of the antislavery witness. In each instance the meaning, relation, and wholeness of the story are given before the narrative opens; they are imposed rather than chosen—what Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) calls "the facts which I felt almost everybody must know."
This approach would seem to resolve some persistent questions about the Narrative: why its structure is so similar to earlier (and later) abolitionist narratives, why Douglass subordinates so much of his emotional and intellectual life to the experience of slavery, why Garrison and Phillips are at such pains to make it appear a collective enterprise. At the same time it raises at least two others: if not autobiography, what kind of book is the Narrative? And how does it succeed so thoroughly?
White Americans, it would seem, have long attempted to cloak the raw experience of slavery—in the eighteenth century masking it in the language of triumphal Christianity, for most of the nineteenth century transmuting it into the language of abolition. For the years between 1870 and 1950, even this genteel transmutation was too raw, too threatening. Thus the slave narratives remained the most important and the most neglected body of early American writing. A consequence of that neglect is that we lack a distinctive term for a unique genre. For one example, most critics use the term slave narrative to refer to stories of oppression under slavery; yet before 1830 very few of the narratives concerned themselves with the injustices of the institution. Related to captivity tales, Franklinesque success stories, modern autobiographies, and other forms, the slave narrative is essentially different from all. It resembles other forms, but other forms do not resemble it.
In the absence of a distinguishing critical category, we must make do with that phrase used in authors' prefaces and advertisements as synonymous with abolitionist narrative—"personal history of slavery." Douglass was clearly aware in 1845 of the terms for such a history, for he had referred to them in his lectures earlier and wrote about them at length later. Before he became an antislavery agent, he had been questioned frequently concerning his life under slavery; once selected as an agent, he was coached concerning those aspects of slavery most likely to appeal to an ignorant or indifferent Northern audience. He had read the earlier separately published narratives and followed the shorter tales printed in the Liberator and other periodicals. He knew, he said, of the abolitionist emphasis upon facts, verifiable facts; upon instances of cruelty, repression, and punishment; upon the depth of Christianity in the owner's household; and so on. Overall, he knew that he was being woven into a network of clergymen, politicians, tradesmen, writers, editors, sponsors, and societies that was transatlantic in scope and resources. On any given day of lecturing, for example, he knew he would be introduced and followed by white speakers who would testify to his candor, character, and authenticity. And he knew he would conclude his address with an appeal to the audience to do as he had done—become absorbed in the abolitionist crusade.
Douglass was thus situated at the intersection of collectivizing forces. On both sides of the political divide, white people were busy defining and hence depersonalizing him. Apologists for slavery were doing their utmost to discredit him as a fraud; Garrison's agents were doing their best to publicize him as a representative fugitive slave. The issue over which they fought was not Douglass the lecturer or Douglass the author. Rather it was a narrower issue of their own defining. Douglass was important insofar as he embodied the experience of slavery. As author he was therefore caught in a genuine dilemma. He was indeed an individual human being with a particular story to tell, but if he were to discover personalizing words for his life, he must do so within the language of abolition. His success in resolving that dilemma, as arresting today as when it was first published, makes the Narrative the most comprehensive personal history of slavery in the language.
It embodies comprehension on several levels and in several successive stages, as intellectual apprehension of the many influences of slavery and narrative compassing its equally many forms. In the beginning Douglass as narrator comprehends the world that slaveholders have made, and Douglass as actor comprehends the power of language to transform that world. In his mature years he apprehends the eloquence of silence as well as the liberating power of words. Finally, as at once actor and narrator, he comprehends his own situation in the tradition of the slave narrative. Douglass highlights these levels with a series of gem-like sentences of Enlightenment irony and compression. Two are notable as preliminary illustrations of his modes of comprehension. Recalling his entrance into the Auld household in Baltimore twenty years before, he reports: "Little Thomas was told, there was his Freddy. . . ." In eight short words of indirect quotation, he signals both the effect of chattel slavery upon the Auld family and his intellectual apprehension of his place in the system. The Auld child is "Little Thomas"—an exalted owner of human property; Douglass is diminished in name as well as status—"his Freddy." In the kind of Enlightenment balance and compression sought by Hume and Johnson (but not surpassed by them), two adjectives modifying two nouns carry all the weight of significance: analysis enveloped by description. The Aulds address not Douglass but the child. Douglass is deployed as an object—in the sentence, the child's mind, the household, and the system—and so employs himself to convey his awareness of that situation. The burden of the narrative will be to reveal the necessary reversal of that situation. The Aulds are too vacuous and vulnerable, Douglass too penetrating, for it to hold. In what Albert Stone has rightly called the key sentence of the Narrative, Douglass again unites balance, reversal, and narrative time to embody what an abolitionist narrative should be: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." These two sentences suggest the depth of his enterprise. While operating within the abolitionist code, his adroit use of language would give his narrative a greater personal imprint, a wider historical compass, and a surer view of slavery than had ever been presented before.
That code prescribed that the opening portions of a narrative (as of a lecture) be heavily factual, containing if possible verifiable accounts of birth, parentage, and slaveholders. Douglass provided that—and much more. His opening paragraphs indicate a concern for accuracy designed to satisfy even the most hostile or scrupulous hunter of details. No one can do it better, he says in effect. He is then in position to portray the world of slaveholders and their minions, the world into which he was born. His plays upon the names of "Captain" Anthony, Mr. Severe, and Mr. Freeland are instances of his reduction of diverse personalities to their precise roles in an economic system they barely understand. With Austin Gore he provides a more elaborate description and a more powerful form of comprehension:
Mr. Gore was proud, ambitious, and persevering. He was artful, cruel, and obdurate. He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man.
With two trinities of adjectives and another sentence of finely wrought symmetry, the character of this baneful overseer is caught and reduced as if he were an overweening functionary in MoliEere or Ben Jonson. With Gore's employer, Colonel Lloyd, Douglass's irony is at full stretch. In Lloyd's callousness toward men and women and his sensitivity toward horses, he finds an apt sign of his owner's true worth. Because he is so utterly insecure with people, Lloyd's threat is shown to be hollow and his stature petty. When we learn that on his plantation only horses are treated with regard, we understand the social situation he has created and its underlying structure. He and his class are like the petty gods of Greek myth, absurd whichever way they turn.
In comprehending his own and their assistants, Douglass establishes his grasp of a type representing the most powerful families in the South. In a sense he has defined the type, as a dramatist does his primary actors. But he does not stop there, as earlier narrators had done. For his interweaving of interpretation with description has all along recognized the economic machinery of which Anthony and Lloyd are but small cogs. Slavery, he shows, wishes to control more than the labor and physical being of slaves—even to their words, their very language. His first owner must be addressed as Captain Anthony: ". . . a title which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on the Chesapeake Bay." Like the many slaveholders who insisted upon being called "General" or "Colonel," Anthony demands that he be known by a self-conferred military title. Slaves alone could entitle masters, this artifice seems to say. Likewise, Colonel Lloyd rode out to outlying farms—where he wasn't known by sight—to question field slaves about how kindly their master was. For a candid answer, a slave would be sold South. Reporting these episodes, Douglass makes clear that what is being revealed is larger than his owner's self-deception. Slaveholders, by seeking to control slave language, sought to exact slave complicity in their own subjugation. Their self-conceptions required the right words, the correct words. With the proper words, a slave could keep his life intact. With the proper words, a slaveholder could keep his self-esteem intact. In each case, the owner compels the slave to authorize the owner's power. Slavery and the language of slavery are virtually coextensive.
In comprehending the equation of words and power, Douglass relates not only the workings of slavery as a system, but also the advent of his personal history within it. He describes his initial situation in Chapter II as a well of ignorance, typified by his insensitivity to the words of work songs:
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension. . . .
This memory and the image of incomprehension spurred by it testify that for his life, as for the narrative we are reading, there will be no stop, no comforting return until his comprehension is complete. In one of the passages blending past and present at which he is so adept, he remarks:
The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, affects me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.
The next stage in his understanding of the language of slavery takes Douglass to Baltimore, the Auld household, and the forbidden seduction of reading. Auld's diatribe on the danger of language is well known as the impelling force for Douglass' climbing the ladder to literacy. Yet it is equally significant as a further sketch of the effects of slavery upon white people. Because they do not know what slavery is doing to them, the Aulds understand far less what it is doing to him. The exercise of petty power is for Mrs. Auld as corrupting as the possession of great wealth has been for Colonel Lloyd. (It is also possible to see in her decline features of those Garrisonians who turned on Douglass.) It is through them that Douglass gains his penultimate lessons of the perversions of slavery.
In most abolitionist narratives the quest for freedom through literacy would conclude here, the story redirected toward plans for escape. With Douglass, however, simple literacy is merely the ground upon which a complex psychological drama will be played. Although he has learned much from earlier narratives, he will not provide exactly the same kind of straight-line narrative found in, say, Moses Roper, James Curry, Lunceford Lane, or Moses Grandy. His war with slavery through language consists not of a single battle with clear-cut victory on either side. Rather it is a sustained series of costly skirmishes, with losses following hard upon gains. As Auld had predicted, Douglass at twelve years of age is beset by discontent. His fall is occasioned by his hunger for language, for while his readings "relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved." The more he learns of slavery, the farther freedom seems to recede. The condition is temporary since he refuses to be satisfied. The discontent brought on by language will be relieved by language: in this instance by a single word—abolition—and its resonance. The pain that is aggravated by language is also palliated by language. As he came to apprehend the meaning of abolition, he records, "The light broke in upon me by degrees."
The predicament recurs at a higher level when he is broken by Covey's demands of incessant labor: "I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. . . . [T]he dark night of slavery closed in upon me. . . ." The language of abolition he has been learning possessed the power to inspire longing and to instill despair when that longing is thwarted. And once again a call in words evokes a powerful response, in the apostrophe to the ships on the Chesapeake so well analyzed by Stone [in "Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass's Narrative," CLA Journal 17 (1973)]. His predicament is resolved in a form of blues sermon that raises all doubts and answers all: "There is a better day coming." Douglass's career has been an ascent toward freedom through literacy. His comprehension of the language—first of slavery, then of abolition—has been the ladder of his climb. Structurally, he himself marks his rise to the top by his battle with Covey and the pivotal sentence, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Thematically it is the "protections" he writes for himself and others in 1835 that signal his position. With the protections he can write his way North, the ultimate verification of his victory over slavery and a final proof of his comprehension of language.
Although the contest with Covey has made Chapter X the most famous portion of the Narrative, it is the final chapter that most reveals its distinction as a personal history. In half the length of the preceding section, Chapter XI accomplishes three very large tasks of comprehension. First, he exercises an eloquence of silence fully as powerful as his brilliance of language. When he forgoes an account of his escape, he relinquishes an element of the narrative that had made it one of the most popular literary forms in America in the 1840s. For example, in Moses Roper before him, William Wells Brown, Henry Box Brown, the Crafts, and John Thompson after him, the escape is an exciting adventure story in itself, uniting ingenuity, suspense, courage, and endurance. It is, in short, precisely the kind of story Northeastern audiences would pay to hear and read. Douglass' decision to withhold that part of his story is an assertion of personal control within a mandated form. Only he can write this section, not Garrison or Phillips; only he knows what is being withheld. Only he can decide the proper time for its release. At the moment of writing he is painfully aware of the short distance (political as well as temporal) that separates past from present. Hence his silence is evoked by a communal regard for fellow slaves still seeking means of escape: he must "not run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery."
Second, what he does choose to include equally bears his personal stamp, the language of a free man. The two sentences in which he dates his escape and destination are models of laconic understatement, conspicuous in their restraint. By this point he has comprehended the art of the oxymoron, as he provides readers with poised anxiety and loud softness—eloquent silence. Also conspicuous is his inclusion of a second document (the first being the protections), the only one not of his own composition. The certificate of marriage to Anna Murray, subscribed by James W. C. Pennington, appears to be Douglass' proof in language of a new existence. Socially, legally, sexually, religiously, he is indeed a man—in the eyes of most Americans, for the first time. It was to this need for documentation that Pennington returned in his narrative, The Fugitive Blacksmith, in 1849. In his preface, he wrote:
Whatever may be the ill or favored condition of the slave in the matter of mere personal treatment, it is the chattel relation that robs him of his manhood, and transfers his ownership in himself to another. . . . It is this that throws his family history into utter confusion, and leaves him without a single record to which he may appeal in vindication of his character, or honor. And has a man no sense of honor because he was born a slave? Has he no need of character?
Douglass has ensured that his new family will be recorded, will from its inception possess a sense of honor.
In his final narrative gesture, Douglass establishes that he comprehends the tradition of the slave story and attempts to subvert a portion of that tradition. By closing with his address to the Nantucket convention in 1841, Douglass . . . brings the narrative full circle, to the opening sentence of Garrison's Preface. Garrisonians, he explains in My Bondage and My Freedom, often sought to limit his scope: "Give us the facts . . . we will take care of the philosophy" (1855 ed.). Here he makes no mention of Garrison and reverses a persistent abolitionist tactic. Garrison and his associates often spoke as if former slaves were minor characters in their great antislavery story. Douglass deftly ensures that Phillips and Garrison will, in this narrative, be minor characters in his story. He authenticates them.
It is a bold gesture. For on a philosophical level, one might say that the slave narrative as a form is defined paradoxically by a suppression of the personal voice of the slave. Most sponsors regarded the slave by stipulation as primitive and then proceeded to use the narrative to address other white people. Many sponsors condescendingly saw the narratives as essentially a political form for their own use and said that fugitive slaves had no stories until the abolitionists gave them one. Douglass by 1845 is certainly aware of the complex of attitudes surrounding him: "The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down." Humility and restraint are poised in this final paragraph, for it gains dignity by using Enlightenment language when explosive effusion seems called for. Like his audience in Nantucket, his readers acknowledge the effort, the discipline of his control. Slavery is far worse than anything he can say about it. The tension created between the cruelties which he recounts and his manner of recounting them he will use communally, not to win applause, but to go on working. The surplus of tension will be spent in the future and in language; "engaged in pleading the cause of his "brethren." Whatever his sponsors intend, he will not be distracted. His tension will be active, always on the move, always renewing and being renewed.
The Narrative, I would contend, is the first comprehensive, personal history of American slavery. Autobiography would come a decade later, in My Bondage and My Freedom. If many readers prefer the earlier volume, the reasons are not far to search. The Narrative is as tightly written as a sonnet, the work of years in the pulpit and on the lecture circuit. It comprehends all major aspects of slavery as Douglass knew it in a narrative that is as dramatically compassing as any first-person novel. It is at the same time a personal history of the struggle with and for language—against words that repress, for words that liberate. It is for author and reader alike a personalizing account of a system that would depersonalize everyone. It is the retelling of the most important Christian story, the Crucifixion, in the midst of the most important American civil crisis, the battle over slavery.
In The Fugitive Blacksmith Pennington asked if a slave had no need of character. He answered the question in the following way: "Suppose insult, reproach, or slander, should render it necessary for him to appeal to the history of his family in vindication of his character, where does he find that history? He goes to his native state, to his native county, to his native town; but nowhere does he find any record of himself as a man." It is an acute question, one he is eager to raise, I believe, because of Douglass's example. Douglass renewed the conservative form of the slave narrative at a critical time. He gave record of himself as an antislavery man. And the magnitude of that achievement is difficult to overestimate. For in moral terms the slave narrative and its postbellum heirs are the only history of American slavery we have. Outside the narrative, slavery was a wordless, nameless, timeless time. It was time without history and time without imminence. Slaveholders sought to reduce existence to the duration of the psychological present and to mandate their records as the only reliable texts. Whatever the restrictions placed upon them, Douglass and the other narrators changed that forever. To recall one's personal history is to renew it. The Narrative is both instrument and inscription of that renewal.
Eric J. Sundquist (essay date 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6700
SOURCE: "Frederick Douglass: Literacy and Paternalism," in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, edited by William L. Andrews, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 120-32.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Sundquist examines Douglass's symbolic and rhetorical use of literacy and paternity—and the powers each represents—in My Bondage and My Freedom.]
The chronological point at which Frederick Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), surpasses his first, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), reveals an important discrepancy that goes to the heart of his controversial career. The Narrative concludes with a brief description of Douglass's first significant public speech in Nantucket on 11 August 1841. "I spoke but a few moments," Douglass writes, "when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren—with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide." In My Bondage and My Freedom, on the other hand, Douglass reports, "It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitating and stammering. I trembled in every limb."
These different recollections of the occasion may both be relatively accurate; but the later version is more significant because it introduces the rest of Douglass's account of his life to date—his successful oratorical career, his widely acclaimed tour of Britain, his founding of the North Star, his battle against discrimination in the North, and the event against which his most important achievements must be judged: his break with the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. "But excited and convulsed as I was," Douglass continues in the second version of his initiation at Nantucket, "the audience, though remarkably quiet before, became as much excited as myself. Mr. Garrison followed me, taking me as his text; and now, whether I had made an eloquent speech or not, his was one never to be forgotten by those who heard it."
To be presented as Garrison's "text" was for Douglass the primary role of his early career: "I was generally introduced as a 'chattel'—a 'thing'—a piece of southern 'property'—the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak." Or, "I was a 'graduate from the peculiar institution . . . with my diploma written on my back!'" His eventual disgust with being told to look and act like a slave, to keep "a little of the plantation" in his speech, is well known, and the writing career that began with the Narrative has been rightly seen as an attempt both to refute accusations that his story was not authentic and to seize personal power over it at the same time. In transfiguring the text of his scarred slave's body into the combative written narrative that forced him to flee to England, Douglass took the first step in a lifelong series of autobiographical revisions that would culminate in the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881 and its extended version in 1892. Both the contents and the serial development of his autobiographical writings make evident the subversive lesson young Frederick first learned in reading the alphabet—that literacy is power.
Even if one prefers the fresh, stark text of the Narrative, it must be recognized that it too is no simple recitation of Douglass's slave and fugitive life. As Houston Baker has remarked, the Narrative itself represents a public version of Douglass's self already molded by white America, for "the voice of the unwritten self, once it is subjected to the linguistic codes, literary conventions, and audience expectations of a literate population, is perhaps never again the authentic voice of black American slavery." Because this is doubly true of My Bondage and My Freedom, part of the interest of the revised text lies in the fact that it is written against the grain both of recent historiography on slavery, which has been preoccupied with recovering the lost facts of Afro-American life, and also most recent work on slave narratives as a distinctive Afro-American genre.
Douglass's language in his second autobiography is thoroughly "American," in political as well as in literary terms, as is the versatile language of the self-made man which dominates the later chapters of Life and Times. One might argue that My Bondage an My Freedom therefore anticipates what some consider the pompous style and accommodating posture of Douglass's mature career. But a preference for the Narrative could also be seen as a later version of the condescending instructions Douglass himself despised: "'Let us have the facts,' . . . said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. 'Give us the facts,' said [John] Collins, 'we will take care of the philosophy.' '. . . Tell your story, Frederick,' would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform." As Douglass notes, he was by this time "reading and thinking," and it "did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them." In its spirit of individualism and rebellion, My Bondage and My Freedom "is an American book, for Americans, in the fullest sense of the idea," as the black abolitionist James McCune Smith wrote in a preface that replaced the authenticating introductory letters of Garrison and Wendell Phillips which had opened the Narrative. It is precisely in his adopted American language that Douglass rehearses his own "adoption" by America and acquires the power that was to make him the leading black figure in America for nearly half a century. How could it fail to be the disturbing language of that "double-consciousness"—"American" and "Negro"—which W. E. B. DuBois would identify in the Afro-American tradition at the turn of the century: "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
DuBois's famous description of the black American dilemma is all the more relevant because Douglass's late career and legend have been subject to as much problematic appropriation and counter-claim as Lincoln's. This is no surprise, for the two figures have at times been mythologically fused, and both were exposed to abuse by the collapse of black civil rights in the last decades of the century. For example, Booker T. Washington's 1906 biography of Douglass is praising but overtly conciliatory in tone; whereas DuBois, whatever his doubts about Douglass on other occasions, argues in the Washington chapter of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that Douglass, throughout his life, "bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood,—ultimate assimilation through self-assertion, and on no other terms." Washington's spirit of compromise in the three crucial areas of suffrage, civil rights, and higher education, DuBois goes on to imply, is an utter betrayal of Douglass.
The argument between Washington and DuBois over Douglass, like the more extreme arguments that found Lincoln alternately a white supremacist and a martyred champion of immediate black rights, brings into focus two aspects of the same doubled character. My Bondage and My Freedom makes that doubling a powerful and explicit theme. It reconceives rebellion in terms of an embracing ideology of liberation rooted in the rhetoric of the American Revolution. But it would be a mistake to read the Douglass of 1855 as an embarrassing sentimentalist and "white" patriot, an incipient Booker T. Washington; he would better be likened to Madison Washington, the black hero of the revolt aboard the slave ship Creole in 1841 and the subject of Douglass's only work of fiction, The Heroic Slave.
Quite apart from the content of The Heroic Slave, the very fact of its publication, in Julia Griffiths's gift-book, Autographs for Freedom (1853), alerts us to its autobiographical implications: the story represents, in effect, Douglass's own "autograph for freedom," his declaration of liberty through acts of increasingly rebellious literacy. Proceeds from the collection were intended to mitigate the financial difficulties of the North Star, and Douglass offered Autographs free to new subscribers to his paper. His own contribution to the collection placed him in the mainstream of intellectual antislavery. It invites us to identify him with his quasi-fictional rebel-hero, who appears throughout his speeches of the period as a model of black achievement. In The Heroic Slave, Douglass invokes the domestic cult surrounding the legend of George Washington but subverts its inherent conservatism by making Madison Washington, the black Virginian rebel, articulate his ideal of liberty: "We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they." These same sentiments pervade My Bondage and My Freedom and echo Douglass's endorsement of violent slave rebellion. Dramatized in the fictional setting, however, they suggest as well that Douglass's persona in the new autobiography is also part of a rhetorical masquerade, a deliberate augmentation of his power at a new level of literacy. The Douglass who wrote the Narrative, had a successful tour of Britain, moved to Rochester and founded his own paper (against the wishes of Phillips and Garrison), endorsed the Constitution, entered on a struggle against the narrow fanaticism of the Massachusetts abolitionists who would make him their puppet, changed the name of the North Star to Frederick Douglass' Paper after Garrison blacklisted it in response to Douglass's disavowal of Garrisonian positions—this Douglass is the patriotic rebel-slave, the hero of his own fictionalized story based on fact.
The Heroic Slave thus links the two autobiographies, and by implicitly dramatizing his own rebellion portrays Douglass's escape from a new enslavement to the Boston abolitionists' ethnocentric paternalism. Its narrative form, in which a fugitive slave, through the power of his character and his story, converts a white man to antislavery, anticipates the unlikely role in which Douglass—punning on his recent status as chattel, as a thing—cast himself first as a speaker and then as a young editor in My Bondage and My Freedom: "A slave, brought up in the very depths of ignorance, assuming to instruct the highly civilized people of the north in the principles of liberty, justice, and humanity! The thing looked absurd." By itself, the lecture platform possibly seemed too much like the auction block. The newspaper, like the autobiography or the short story, offered Douglass, as it had Benjamin Franklin, the opportunity to "edit" his own American identity and thus reach a wider audience, white and black. It leads directly into My Bondage and My Freedom, defining the public self as a newly revised and more vitally marketed "thing"—a man with property in himself.
In the Life and Times, Douglass's longer account of his newspaper career supports Robert Stepto's observation that, when he renamed his paper Frederick Douglass' Paper in 1851, Douglass was expressing less his supposed arrogance than his sense of exile and solitude. As he conceived of it, the change is a signal instance of American self-reliance. "I have come to think," he writes in 1881, "that, under the circumstances, it was the best school possible for me," making it "necessary for me to lean upon myself, and not upon the heads of our antislavery church . . . There is nothing like the lash and sting of necessity to make a man work, and my paper furnished the motive power." Like the title of his always popular lecture on "Self-Made Men," this striking metaphorical appropriation of slavery's whip by the work ethic of American success clarifies the doubleness entailed in Douglass's career as a writer and editor. "My feet have been so cracked with frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes," Douglass writes in a famous passage that appears in all the autobiographies. Not only the voice, but the pen was the key to liberty, no less for black Americans than it had been for the pamphleteers of the Revolutionary period.
During the late 1840s and 1850s, however, Douglass continually chastised free blacks for their comparative lack of interest in abolitionism, and in antislavery papers like his own (eighty percent of his subscribers were white). If blacks were active in the underground railroad or the freeing of fugitive slaves, they were, Douglass argued, unsupportive of freedom's most crucial instruments—public protest and the written word. "They reason thus: Our fathers got along pretty well through the world without learning and without meddling with abolitionism, and we can do the same." But their fathers were not Douglass's father; his father—probably his first master, Aaron Anthony—was almost certainly white. The intricate attitude toward fathers and family in My Bondage and My Freedom is directly related to Douglass's growing literacy, his sense of self-reliance, and his imagined role as another Madison Washington. In a typically American gesture, he makes himself his own father. This fictional self is composed at once of the absent father who so absorbs his attention in My Bondage and My Freedom, of the black rebel-slave who leads others to freedom and converts a white audience to antislavery, and of the Founding Fathers, whose rhetoric of democratic liberty punctuates Douglass's writing after 1848 and begins fully to flower in the break with Garrison over the proper reading of the Constitution of the United States. The white father-figure who took Douglass as his "text" is replaced by a self-fathered figure combining black and white ideals. The doctrine of self-reliance that will become conspicuous in Douglass's later speeches and autobiography is thus at the center of this creative process insofar as it partakes of the Emersonian impulse to liberate the ego from inherited constraints, to seize and aggrandize the power of domineering ancestors, or their surrogates, in order to fashion one's own paternity.
Because Douglass's act of self-fathering is embedded in the rhetoric and ideals of the Revolutionary fathers, the literacy he says he acquired from reading speeches on the meaning of liberty in The Columbian Orator, his first secret textbook, takes on a special tone in My Bondage and My Freedom. His characterization of the Irish orator Richard Sheridan's "bold denunciation of slavery and . . . vindication of human rights," as the Narrative phrases it, becomes his "powerful denunciation of oppression, and . . . most brilliant vindication of the rights of man." Not the "silver trump of freedom," but "Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man," now rouses Douglass; and the much extended passage becomes a virtual oration itself, attacking religion as the opiate of the slaves and indulging in rhetoric at once revolutionary and sentimentally gothic: "Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation." Modern readers have tended to disparage such language in My Bondage and My Freedom. Yet the text reminds us that the revolutionary language of liberation and the abolitionist language of sentiment are virtually synonymous, not just in the best antislavery writing but in many of the era's literary and political treatments of the problem of bondage. Douglass transplants the language of oppression and liberation from the Romantic and Gothic traditions (where it had been a particular spur to Britain's successful antislavery movement), and binds it to the language of American Revolutionary sentiment. In doing so he reimagines the escape from bondage into a world of natural rights as a new confrontation with the paradox of the Founding Fathers' belief that American freedom was compatible with black slavery.
The "author of my situation" in this case is his Baltimore master Hugh Auld, who forbade his wife to continue teaching young Frederick to read. The meaning of Auld's "authority"—his suppression of Douglass's rebellious literate self—is clarified by other revisions Douglass makes in his second version of his life. In teaching Frederick his "A,B,C," "as if I had been her own child," Sophia Auld makes him, as he now recalls it, "master of the alphabet." In his remonstrance Auld predicts not only that a literate slave would quickly become discontent, but that literacy would produce in the slave a dangerous sequence leading him to seize control of his own self: "'If you learn him how to read, he'll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself.'" This "true philosophy of training a human chattel," Douglass adds in the revised version, was "the first decidedly antislavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen." Douglass's conception of himself as an object to be stolen, his mastery of the alphabet, Auld's "iron sentences," which stir up his feelings "into a sort of rebellion" and take their place alongside the many references to the "iron rule" of slavery that echo through My Bondage and My Freedom—these revisions suggest that Douglass attributes his literacy as much to the "opposition of my master" as to Sophia Auld's initial kindness, and they predict a more vivid struggle that unfolds along paternal, or more accurately, paternalistic, lines. Literacy is linked to the power to enslave and, alternatively, to the power to liberate and hence father oneself. In My Bondage and My Freedom Hugh Auld stands emphatically in a sequence of fathers that now includes the abolitionists and the Revolutionary fathers themselves, against all of whom Douglass must work to define himself as though in "opposition to my master."
This autobiographical portrait of the Romantic mind awakened to the Enlightenment language of liberation is duplicated in the scene in The Heroic Slave in which Listwell, the white protagonist and soon-to-be antislavery convert, overhears Madison Washington's plaintive soliloquy in the woods:
A giant's strength, but not a giant's heart was in him. His broad mouth and nose spoke only of good nature and kindness. But his voice, that unfailing index of his soul, though full and melodious, had that in it which could terrify as well as charm. . . . There came another gush from the same full fountain; now bitter, and now sweet. Scathing denunciations of the cruelty and injustice of slavery; heart-touching narrations of his own personal suffering, intermingled with prayers to the God of the oppressed for help and deliverance, were followed by presentations of the dangers and difficulties of escape, and formed the burden of his eloquent utterances; but his high resolution clung to him,—for he ended each speech by an emphatic declaration of his purpose to be free.
The self-consciousness revealed here, along with the subtle sense of a predominantly sentimental audience, is played upon throughout My Bondage and My Freedom. The heroic figure of Madison Washington, like the heroic figure of Frederick Douglass, speaks to an audience open to the double rhetoric of benevolence and liberty, a language both feminine and masculine. In the figure of Madison Washington the hybrid feminine or maternal image of George Washington—inspired by the popular archetype of mothers instructing their children about the nation's father—is joined to the masculine specter of rebellion and terror, the Nat Turner rebel. The double character of sentiment and rebellion that appears in Douglass's short story and in his autobiography, as in other popular antislavery texts like Uncle Tom's Cabin, was reflected in different form in the split slave personality—the docile "Sambo" that concealed the rebellious "Nat"—that John Blassingame has identified in accounts of plantation life following the Turner cataclysm in 1831. Douglass's fictional hero and his created autobiographical self combine these two forms of doubleness. In embracing violent slave rebellion Douglass tapped the energy of Romantic liberation and rescued the unfinished task of American freedom, imposing the mask of subversive uprising upon the face of the nation's archetypal father.
The contradictory laws of the southern slaveholding fathers and the northern democratic fathers—agonizingly fused in the Fugitive Slave Law—required of Douglass a complex response that is evident in his treatment of slaveholding paternalism and the problem of his own paternity. The figure of Douglass's lost or unknown father underlies the combined problems of paternalism and self-fathering rebellion that animate Douglass's revised text. The instrument of such self-fathering was language, through which Douglass reshaped his life into the most effective and powerful form in his autobiographies and other public documents. The famous 1848 public letter to Thomas Auld, which first appeared in Garrison's Liberator and was then appended to My Bondage and My Freedom, falsely charged Auld with a number of brutalities (Douglass later apologized): but Douglass revealed his hand in saying, "I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery—as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men."
If Douglass seems somewhat less certain about his true paternity in the 1855 text, it is in part because the ambiguity of his origins has itself become a part of his rhetorical strategy: fathers had become a weapon in Douglass's arsenal of literacy. "Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves," Douglass writes. "A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and practice." The whimsical punning is less overt in a later passage: "I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers as it does away with families . . . When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system." These revisions indicate more than just new uncertainty about his paternity, for his attack on the slaveholder's breeding of new property and on the tragedy of miscegenation and broken families is expanded throughout the volume into a meditation on the corruption of the family by paternalistic power. In the Narrative, for example, he had written of the separation of children and mothers, "for what [reason] this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child's affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result." But in My Bondage and My Freedom, he contends that the practice of separation "is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution." Like the father, the family, its sacred symbolism claimed by North and South alike, takes its place in an ideological conflict that Douglass the public figure can now more accurately judge and use to advantage.
Accordingly, mothers are now carefully juxtaposed to fathers in Douglass's rendering. The extended description of his mother's death in My Bondage and My Freedom may reflect his intervening reading of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it does so with full irony: "Scenes of sacred tenderness, around the deathbed, never forgotten, and which often arrest the vicious and confirm the virtuous during life, must be looked for among the free, though they may sometimes occur among the slaves." Because he has "no striking words of hers treasured up," Douglass has to "learn the value of my mother long after her death, and by witnessing the devotion of other mothers to their children." He recollects her image by looking at a picture in Pritchard's Natural History of Man (the Egyptian picture of Ramses the Great, which as James McCune Smith notes is markedly European as well). While he learns after her death that his mother could read and thus can attribute his "love of letters . . . not to my admitted Anglo-Saxon paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother," he must still get her teaching from a series of white "mothers"—the kind Lucretia Auld, Sophia Auld, the abolitionist Julia Griffiths, and now perhaps Harriet Beecher Stowe herself. Douglass deliberately situates his childhood in the domestic tradition of moral instruction, ironically renders it forbidden and subversive, then reconceives of it as part of the antislavery assault on the law of the proslavery fathers. That is to say, Douglass's maternity, whatever priority it takes over his obscure paternity, is nonetheless ambiguous, bordering on the fictional and participating in the literary construction of an ideological family that mediates between Douglass's slaveholding fathers and the flawed tradition of the Revolutionary fathers he sought to redeem.
In his lectures, Douglass often burlesqued the purported paternalism of slavery and held up the slave codes themselves, along with abundant fugitive testimony to the institution's brutality, in counterpoint. He could do so all the more effectively because he saw, as his farewell speech in England had put it, that "the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the bloodhound, the stocks, and all the other bloody paraphernalia of the slave system are indispensably necessary to the relations of master and slave. The slave must be subjected to these, or he ceases to be a slave." Torture or its threat defines the slave's subjection: but for Douglass, as his spiritually liberating fight with the slave breaker Covey suggests, it also comes to define his subjectivity, his liberation from the status of object, of property, of thing. In My Bondage and My Freedom the greater attention given to incidents of whipping is therefore not simply a matter of gothic ornamentation, but as in the newly added story of Doctor Isaac Copper, the old slave who teaches slave children the "Our Father" of the Lord's Prayer with whip in hand, demonstrates the infectious power of power, the fact that "everybody, in the South, wants the privilege of whipping somebody else." The whip defines the paternalism of slaveholding and becomes the primary symbol of Douglass's now much more precisely characterized "total institution" of slavery.
One need not accept the much debated thesis that, in its brutal dehumanization of slaves and its power to induce in them an imitative behavioral bondage, the plantation resembled the concentration camp, the prison, or other total institutions, in order to be struck by Douglass's new account of Colonel Lloyd's immense plantation in My Bondage and My Freedom. He not only gives a much fuller picture of slave life, but the greater detail and the emphasis on the plantation's self-sufficient, dark seclusion, maintained by diverse labor and trade with Baltimore on Lloyd's own vessels, turn this deceptively abundant, "Eden-like" garden world into a veritable heart of darkness. Both the unusual size of Lloyd's estate and his prominent public place as Maryland's three-time Governor and two-time Senator allow Douglass to expand his own story into an archetype of life under southern slavery's total institution. In this era of reform movements and Utopian communal projects, the plantation posed as a pastoral asylum in which state control and paternal coercion in fact imprisoned the slave in a corrupt "family"—one he might belong to by blood but not by law—and fused the theory of chattel slavery with the sexuality of power. The apotheosis of the total institution of slavery lay for Douglass in this "double relation of master and father," as he called it in the Narrative before making it the defining figure of My Bondage and My Freedom.
Only outside the peculiar institution could Douglass see its totality and its paternalistic power at full play; similarly, only in the 1850s could he see himself as a self-fathered subject, subject now to the equally contradictory paternal institutions of radical antislavery and Revolutionary America. The range of paternal figures whom Douglass contrasts to the master-father figure of the plantation is striking. The new invocations of Nat Turner in My Bondage and My Freedom suggest, as do a number of Douglass's speeches, that his new heroes would not simply be white patriots but, like Joseph Cinque and Madison Washington, black patriots as well. In his greatest instance of ironic oratory, the Fourth of July address of 1852, Douglass places himself outside the American dream but within the circle of the post-Revolutionary generation's principal rhetoric: "It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom . . . Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child's share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blessed by your labors." As George Forgie has argued, the entrapments of perpetual union and perpetual youth induced in the post-Revolutionary generation a paralysis on the issue of slavery that was not broken until Lincoln, a figure equal to the Fathers' heroic stature, embraced and overcame the Fathers at the same time, saving the union and abolishing slavery. As Douglass spoke, however, Lincoln was still following the moderate proslavery course of Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850, as he would for nearly another decade. Douglass, who derided Clay upon his death in 1852 as a man-stealer who did "more than any man in this country to make slavery perpetual," was at that time—perhaps always—a truer son of the Revolutionary generation than Lincoln. While proslavery ideologues like Thomas Dew and James Henry Hammond warned that abolitionist propaganda would tear down the slave "family" and its paternal structure of protection, making slaves "parricides instead of patriots"—as Dew warned after Turner's revolt—Douglass said it could make them both. For the slave in particular, the post-Revolutionary anxiety over the intent of the Founding Fathers could not be separated from personal fatherhood and, more to the point, from the impulse to self-fathering freedom.
The tendency for My Bondage and My Freedom to become an oration does not destroy its coherence, for the moments in which oratory is most evident are often those in which Douglass's new paternal ideology is most strongly espoused. The passage on the ethics of stealing now leads to the assertion that if the slave steals, "he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution." In the most dramatic event of Douglass's life story, his fight with the brutal slave-breaker Covey, the tone of the expanded exclamation of freedom is altered by certain phrases—"embers of liberty," "the unjust and cruel aggressions of a tyrant," and "manly independence"—which appeal to international democratic ideals and differentiate the incident from the then widely popular capitulation of Uncle Tom to the murderous whip of Simon Legree. Most strikingly, Douglass accuses the slaveholder of violating "the just and inalienable rights of man" and thereby "silently whetting the knife of vengeance for his own throat. He never lisps a syllable in commendation of the fathers of this republic, nor denounces any attempted oppression of himself, without inviting the knife to his own throat, and asserting the rights of rebellion for his own slaves." Replacing the lost slaveholding father with the rebel-fathers who authorize parricide in the name of freedom, and replacing his lost literate mother with the tradition of antislavery rhetoric, at once fiery and sentimental, My Bondage and My Freedom portrays the rebel-patriot Frederick Douglass as a figure who merges the urgency of eloquent personal facts and the heroic text of a national ideal.
Douglass continually declared himself a man, not a thing, a man, not a child. Freedom and the new powers of literacy it offered countered the fear he experienced on his second arrival at Hugh Auld's in Baltimore when he saw how little Tommy Auld, whose copybooks Douglass had imitated in learning to write, had begun to acquire the habits of adult slaveholding, aware of his place and his power: "He could grow, and become a MAN; I could grow, though I could not become a man, but must remain, all my life, a minor—a mere boy." It is not surprising that this passage should be added to My Bondage and My Freedom, for Douglass's own growth between 1845 and 1855 must have seemed to him a new phase of maturation that left behind the boy orator of Nantucket. Still, Douglass's life would entail a continued fight for the manhood of his race against the paternalism that prevailed in American custom.
The rhetorical form of that fight was predicted in Douglass's response in 1859 to the voters' rejection of a New York state amendment granting blacks nondiscriminatory voting rights, even as they cast ballots in favor of Lincoln's presidency. "We were overshadowed and smothered by the presidential struggle—overlaid by Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin," Douglass wrote. "The black baby of Negro Suffrage was thought too ugly to exhibit on so grand an occasion. The Negro was stowed away like some people put out of sight their deformed children when company comes." It was Douglass's fate, of course, to remain overshadowed by Lincoln, despite his frequent criticism of the president for failing to act more resolutely on the issue of black troops, colonization, emancipation, and civil rights. Douglass's struggle to effect the Negro's "full and complete adoption into the national family of America," as he put it in 1863, employed familial rhetoric in the only logical way, in which the Negro "child" confronted the white "father." Whatever his awareness of the doubleness of his own meanings, perhaps Douglass himself could not have said whether such language was a compromise with racism or instead acted ironically to subvert it. Neither Lincoln's open and generous manner on the two occasions he sought Douglass's advice nor Douglass's appointment to prominent positions by later Republican presidents could make that adoption completely meaningful.
Douglass's own ambivalence can best be seen in the terms by which he memorialized Lincoln at the dedication of the Freedman's Lincoln Monument in 1876. The monument, paid for primarily by the contributions of black veterans, was unveiled on 14 April, the anniversary both of Lincoln's assassination and of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. Grant and his cabinet, the Supreme Court justices, and other dignitaries listened as Douglass declared that "when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln." But this moderate and gracious conclusion suspends a more critical tone in the body of the address, a tone in which Douglass seems to be measuring his own relationship with Lincoln. Was Lincoln "tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent," or "swift, zealous, radical, and determined?" Douglass posed a question historians have not yet answered to satisfaction, and a similar one would later be asked about Douglass himself. Douglass no doubt identified with Lincoln the self-made man, who studied his "English Grammar by the uncertain flare and glare of the light made by a pine-knot," the "son of toil himself [who] was linked in brotherly sympathy with the sons of toil in every loyal part of the Republic." But he stood apart from Lincoln even so: "It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man." "You," Douglass said, returning to the divisive rhetoric he had employed in such powerful forms as the Fourth of July address, "You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstance and necessity."
Freedom's step-children, even Lincoln's step-children: Douglass probes the limits of paternalistic rhetoric even as he accepts a familiar role. Conceivably, Lincoln had become a new weapon in Douglass's arsenal; and yet the subversive power of his literacy was in this case circumscribed and contained by the ritual necessities of the occasion. Douglass later confessed that he did not like Thomas Ball's design for the monument, which may itself have inspired his metaphor of the step-child. The statue, in Benjamin Quarles's words, "revealed Lincoln in a standing position, holding in his right hand the Emancipation Proclamation, while his left hand was poised above a slave whom he gazed upon. The slave was represented in a rising position with one knee still on the ground. The shackles on his wrists were broken. At the base of the monument the word 'EMANCIPATION' was carved." What, then, are we to make of the fact that Douglass appended the speech to his third autobiography, the 1881 Life and Times? The matter might seem inconsequential were it not that Douglass's appendices reveal an interesting pattern. In his early oratorical mode, the notorious appendix to the Narrative attacks the relations between American church and American slavery with vicious irony; the appendices to My Bondage and My Freedom consist of extracts from Douglass's public letter to Thomas Auld, the Fourth of July address, and other documents from the phase of Revolutionary fervor in his thought from 1848 through the war; and the Lincoln Monument speech shows Douglass at his most formal and public, ambiguously embracing America's martyred hero even while resisting him, just as Lincoln himself had both embraced and overthrown the Founding Fathers. Lincoln became for Douglass the last father with whom he would have to struggle, conscious all the while of the continued "double consciousness" that defined him, perhaps now more than ever, as both a Negro and an American, two souls—two bloods—at war in one body.
The spirit of "self-reliance, self-respect, industry, perseverance, and economy" that Douglass urges on his black audience at the end of the Life and Times has led commentators to dub him a "Negro edition of Ben Franklin" or a "black Horatio Alger." Rightly seen, Douglass's acceptance of the American enterprise of self-making begins at least as early as the North Star; and Smith's preface to My Bondage and My Freedom praises Douglass's "self-elevation" from the barbarism of slavery and calls him "a Representative American man—a type of his countrymen," bearing "upon his person and upon his soul every thing that is American." Douglass's American Odyssey surely reaches a climax when he inserts into the 1881 version of his life a copy of a Rochester newspaper's description of a commemorative bust of Douglass placed in the University of Rochester. The notice praises Douglass as one who has seized the opportunities the Republic "offers to self-made men," despite his severe trials as a fugitive, and celebrates him as the eloquent redeemer and deliverer of his race. It makes him, one might say, comparable to—justly equal to—Lincoln, his brother, not his step-child. Douglass is now able to look upon himself as a public figure, even a public monument about which public opinion and encomium, no doubt coincidental with his own, can be quoted. Having created a final public self out of the overcome texts of the past, Douglass has become no mere boy but one of the fathers he had worked at such cost to be.