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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

Amazingly enough, slave narratives fell into obscurity towards the end of the nineteenth century, despite their testimonies to the cruel and unjust treatment of slaves by southern slaveholders and their enormous popularity. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that scholars began to investigate slave narratives as literature in their own right. The combination of personal testimony, cultural history, autobiography, antislavery rhetoric, and adventure story created a genre that marked the beginning of an African-American literary tradition. In their preface to the Norton Critical Edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, editors William Andrews and William McFeely write that ''The heightened civil rights militancy of the 1960s, along with the rise of Black Studies in the academy, helped resurrect the Narrative and elevate Douglass to prominence as the key figure in the evolution of African-American prose in the antebellum period.’’ With the growth of a body of work defined as the African-American literary canon, Douglass' writings were again at the center of attention.

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Douglass' adoption into the canon was the product of a growing body of African-American Studies scholars interested in investigating the origins of African-American political, cultural, and literary thought. For example, American Studies professor Albert E. Stone claims in ''Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass' Narrative’’ that the Narrative is the precursor to African-American autobiographies such as Richard Wright's Black Boy, Malcolm X's (and Haley's) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

At the time of the Narrative's publication in 1845, the United States was becoming increasingly divided over the issue of slavery. Years prior to his writing of the Narrative, Douglass campaigned against slavery, often telling the narrative he eventually penned as part of his oratory. The Narrative made Douglass a celebrity nationally and internationally, selling 4,500 copies in its first five months of publication. Margaret Fuller, editor of the Dial, had this to say about its publication: ''We wish that every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage.’’

However, not everyone was pleased or convinced by Douglass' depiction of his life as a former slave. His most vehement critics attempted to undermine his credibility as an author because of his racial identity as well as his former status as a slave. That an African-American ex-slave who had no formal education could write a book that was eloquent and stirring as well as logical and insightful was hard to fathom by many white Americans, both in the South and the North. The most famous attack came from A. C. C. Thompson, a slaveholder who lived near the home of Thomas Auld, where Douglass had been a slave for many years. In his accusatory letter published in the abolitionist paper The Liberator, Thompson disputes many of Douglass' claims about slavery as well as his personal accounts of Maryland slaveholders whom he labored under. Douglass, however, saw this attack as an opportunity to grant even more legitimacy to his narrative and wrote a reply several months later that uncovered the duplicity and lies of Thompson's letter. Thus, the Narrative had an exciting and controversial reception that has been diminished over time but reveals the power of the word to incite action and change.

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