Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave belongs to the “heroic fugitive” school of literature. Like other slave narratives, it was propagandistic, trying to recruit others in the war against slavery. Of the hundred or so slave narratives in print prior to the Civil War, only sixteen had been written entirely by the former slaves—the others being largely ghostwritten or “as told to”—and Douglass’ account was by far the best. The eloquence of his prose helped to refute the belief in the supposed inferiority of African Americans.
Douglass wrote accurately and with a reliable memory, so that the facts pertaining to the white people in the book could be verified, and instead of generalizing, he supported the narrative with concrete details. Douglass further held the reader’s belief by not inventing dialogue, which would have given the work a semifictitious character. He wrote in a clear, direct, unadorned prose, free from the verbosity that many readers objected to in the novels of such writers as James Fenimore Cooper. Despite his outrage at the cruel treatment of slaves as chattel rather than as human beings, he avoided the sermonizing and sentimentality that flaw parts of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and thereby perhaps evoked a more genuine sympathy for the victims of the “peculiar institution.”
What Douglass accomplished was to make the reader identify with him and thereby to experience vicariously the outrage of slavery. Showing a humanity and intelligence greater than that of his owners and overseers, he demonstrated that African Americans are entitled to the freedom that the Declaration of Independence guarantees to all, who are created equal. Until they got that freedom, however, he found the Declaration “a sham a hollow mockery,” and the defense of slavery on Biblical grounds he denounced as “impiety and hypocrisy.” As Douglass wrote, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” Because of its religious element, with everyone being a child of God, the abolitionist movement took on the character of a crusade. Douglass himself was not a churchgoer, but he did present the idea of retribution. “Will not a righteous God visit for these things?” he asked after his grandmother, too old and infirm to work, was put out in a hut in the woods to survive on her own.
Douglass was also honest enough to note some shortcomings of the slaves themselves, such as their boasting of having a richer, more powerful master than other slaves to the point that they got into fights. In his account of the week between Christmas and New Year, Douglas criticized both masters and slaves for the tradition whereby the slaves were made drunk and given over to merriment that might suppress the spirit of revolt. He argued that the slaves’ songs did not show their happiness but instead expressed their misery.
Douglass wrote two later autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), with an expanded version in 1892 that is 752 pages long. Yet these later versions, though valuable in bringing the story up to date, lack the concentration and urgent intensity of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In it, he speaks not to African Americans only but tries to awaken the conscience of all humanity, hence the book’s power long after slavery has been abolished.