Critical Essay on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself
Although Frederick Douglass wrote several autobiographies during his lifetime, none continues to have the lasting literary impact of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. From its publication in 1845 to its present status in the American literary canon, the Narrative has become one of the most highly acclaimed American autobiographies ever written. Published seven years after Douglass' escape from his life as a slave in Maryland, the Narrative put into print circulation a critique of slavery that Douglass had been lecturing on around the country for many years. Yet while the Narrative describes in vivid detail his experiences of being a slave, it also reveals his psychological insights into the slave/master relationship.
What gives the book its complexity is Douglass' ability to incorporate a number of sophisticated literary devices that fashion a particular African-American identity. Literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his introduction to Classic Slave Narratives, claims that ‘‘Douglass' rhetorical power convinces us that he embodies the structures of thoughts and feelings of all black slaves, that he is the resplendent, articulate part that stands for the whole, for the collective black slave community.’’ Borrowing from a wide range of discourses that include slave narratives, autobiography, sentimental rhetoric, and religious and classical oratory, Douglass creates a testament not only to the horrors of slavery but to the power of the human spirit to transcend odds. The Narrative is a compelling document that shows Douglass' ability to transform himself from an illiterate, oppressed slave to an educated, liberated free man not only literally, by escaping slavery, but also figuratively, in language.
At the time that Douglass wrote his Narrative, most African Americans, especially in the South, had few opportunities to learn to read and write. Further, they also had little legal representation or standing that could protect them from physical harm or provide them access to legal action. Yet as a slave, Douglass manages both to teach himself to learn and to protect himself from harm, as in his showdown with Mr. Covey. The fight that erupts between Douglass and Covey is the turning point of the Narrative. It shows that Douglass' fight to gain freedom is also a fight to gain a selfhood, to be a man. His famous line, ''You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,’’ counters the prevailing argument of the day that slaves were not humans. He illustrates in this line that slaves were perceived as non-humans because they were not treated or represented as such, not because they were biologically inferior, as many claimed.
Throughout the Narrative, Douglass reveals how slaves were denied basic concepts that would provide them with the means of constructing legitimate identities. For example, Douglass mentions at the beginning of the Narrative that slaves rarely knew when they were born, as ‘‘it is the wish of most masters ... to keep their slaves thus ignorant.’’ To know one's birth date, in a sense, provided one with a particularly human identity, a location in time and history. Slaveholders denied even this basic knowledge to keep slaves psychologically on the same level as animals. Throughout the narrative, Douglass brings to light a number of ways in which slaveholders withheld information from slaves in order to keep them from having a basic understanding of themselves as human beings. Such insights lend credibility and power to his narrative at the same time that they reveal his own coming into being as a person. As American Studies professor Albert E. Stone claims, in ''Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass' Narrative,’’ "For the more clearly and fully we see the man and the writer... the more we acknowledge the force of his argument for an end to slavery's denial of individuality and creativity.’’
One of the difficulties in...
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