Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

Margaret Fuller (review date 1845)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ephraim Peabody (essay date 1849)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)

Benjamin Quarles (essay date 1948)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4945 words.)

Houston A. Baker, Jr. (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5447 words.)

James Matlack (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6216 words.)

Donald B. Gibson (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Sekora (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 4218 words.)

Eric J. Sundquist (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 paternityand the powers each representsin My Bondage and My Freedom.]

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 711 words.)