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.
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...
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