Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, one of the finest nineteenth century slave narratives, is the autobiography of the most well-known African American of his time. The narrative chronicles Douglass’ early life, ending soon after his escape from slavery when he was approximately twenty. It focuses on formative experiences that stand out in his life for their demonstration of the cruelty of slavery and of his ability to endure and transcend such conditions with his humanity intact.
Douglass’ work follows the formula of many slave narratives of his day. He structures his story in a linear fashion, beginning with what little information he knew about his origins and progressing episodically through to his escape North. His recurring theme is the brutal nature of slavery, with an emphasis on the persevering humanity of the slaves despite unspeakable trials and the inhumanity of slave owners. Other themes common to Douglass’ and other slave narratives are the hypocrisy of white Christianity, the linkage of literacy to the desire for and attainment of freedom, and the assurance that with liberty the former slave achieved not only a new sense of self-worth but also an economic self-sufficiency. Douglass’ work is characteristic of the nineteenth century in that it is melodramatic and at times didactic.
Despite its conventional traits, however, Douglass’ work transcends formulaic writing. The author’s astute analyses of the psychology of slavery, his eloquent assertions of self, and his striking command of rhetoric lift this work above others in its genre. Particularly memorable scenes include young Frederick’s teaching himself to read, the fight with the slave breaker Covey, the author’s apostrophe to freedom as he watches sailboats on Chesapeake Bay, and his interpretation of slave songs as songs of sorrow.
When Douglass wrote this work in 1845, he had already earned a reputation as one of the most eloquent speakers for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published with a preface written by William Lloyd Garrison, which was followed by a letter by Wendell Phillips. An immediate success, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass soon went through five American and three European editions.
Douglass revised and enlarged the autobiography with later expansions, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). Although these later versions are of historical value for their extension of Douglass’ life story and for their expansion on matters—such as his method of escape—that Douglass purposefully avoided in his first publication, critics generally agree that the spareness and immediacy of the original Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass renders it the most artistically appealing of the autobiographies.
Today Douglass’ book has become canonical as one of the best of the slave narratives, as an eloquent rendering of the American self-made success story, as a finely crafted example of protest literature, and for its influence on two important genres of African American literature—the autobiography and the literary treatment of slavery.