Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Frederick Douglass - Essay

Frederick Douglass


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself Frederick Douglass

The following entry presents criticism of Douglass's autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). See also Frederick Douglass Criticism.

The Narrative is the most famous of the more than one hundred American slave narratives written prior to the Civil War.

Biographical Information

Douglass, whose mother was a black slave and whose father was an unidentified white man, possibly his master, was born around 1817 in Tuckahoe, Maryland, as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was separated from his mother in infancy and raised by his maternal grandmother on the estate of his master, Captain Aaron Anthony. His childhood was relatively happy until he was transferred to the plantation of Anthony's employer, Colonel Edward Lloyd. In 1825 Douglass was again transferred, this time to the Baltimore household of Hugh Auld, whose wife began teaching Douglass to read until Auld insisted that she stop. Douglass became convinced that literacy provided an important key to achieving his freedom and secretly began learning to read on his own.

In 1838, Douglass escaped to New York where he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. In the 1840s he began speaking publicly as a lecturer for William Lloyd Garrison's Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and wrote the Narrative, his account of his experiences as a slave, in response to those critics who doubted that such an eloquent orator had ever been in bondage. Concerned that he could be returned to captivity under the fugitive slave laws, Douglass traveled to England and Ireland, where he was well received by local social reformers. He returned to America in 1847 and bought his freedom from his former master.

In a break with Garrison and his abolitionist paper The Liberator, Douglass founded his own weekly paper, The North Star. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s he continued his work as a writer and speaker for the abolitionist movement, and in 1863 he served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln on the use of black soldiers in the war effort. After the Civil War, Douglass became involved in diplomatic work, including an assignment as consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. He published two more versions of his life story, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). He died in 1895 at his home in Washington, D.C.

Plot and Major Characters

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a detailed, firsthand account of slave life and the process of self-discovery by which Douglass recognized the evils of slavery as an institution. Douglass began his story with his birth and immediately ran into a problem specific to the life of a slave. Although he knew where he was born, he had no exact knowledge of the date, a fact that set him apart from the white children of the plantation who knew their ages and could celebrate their birthdays. Slaves, according to Douglass, “know as little of their age as horses know of theirs.” His awareness of his status as a slave and of the meaning of slavery as an institution was furthered when he witnessed his aunt being stripped to the waist and savagely beaten. One of the more famous episodes in the book involves Douglass overhearing his master, Hugh Auld, rebuking his wife for her desire to teach the slave to read and declaring that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass gleaned two valuable lessons from this experience. He first concluded that keeping slaves ignorant and illiterate was an important element in their subjugation, and resolved to teach himself to read. Second, by observing Mrs. Auld's transformation from a kindly woman with no previous experience as a slave-owner to a harsh mistress under her husband's tutelage, Douglass learned of the institution's effects on even well-intentioned whites.

Douglass's growing dissatisfaction with his condition led to the pivotal incident in which he was sent to Edward Covey, a notorious “slave-breaker,” to be disciplined. Initially reduced to little more than a brute by endless work, Douglass finally refused to submit to Covey's “discipline” any longer. The two engaged in a violent fight and Douglass, in the end, overcame his tormentor, resolving that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” From that point, Douglass was firmly on the road to freedom although it would take him some time before he was able to accomplish that feat. He avoided going into detail on the specific means of his escape, because to do so would “run the hazard of closing the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery.”

Major Themes

One of the most prominent themes in the Narrative involves the association of literacy with freedom. The acquisition of the one precipitated the desire for the other, which was, for Douglass, a two-edged sword. He had occasional regrets about the knowledge that literacy afforded him because without the ability to change his status as slave, he was more miserable than ever. Nonetheless, Douglass's ability to tell his story in his own words firmly refuted the commonly held belief at the time that slaves were incapable of communicating through the standard conventions of American literature. Douglass not only displayed his facility with the dominant literary modes of his time, but he also incorporated folkloric elements from both black and white cultures into his text. Robert G. O'Meally points out that Douglass drew on the tradition of the African-American sermon, itself grounded in folklore, and that the Narrative was meant to be preached as well as read.

Douglass's ambivalent relationship to Christianity is another important theme of his story. The Narrative exposed the hypocrisy of individual Christians whose treatment of slaves was cruel and inhumane, and of organized Christianity as a whole which, with few exceptions, supported the institution of slavery and even claimed that it was sanctioned by God. Douglass believed that the more religious the master, the more cruel he would be, and claimed that “of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Douglass's harsh criticism of Christianity was tempered by his later writings, including the Appendix to the Narrative.

Critical Reception

Of the many slave narratives produced in the nineteenth century, Douglass's has received the most critical attention and is widely regarded as the best. H. Bruce Franklin notes that “from Ephraim Peabody and William Wells Brown to the present, all students of the slave narrative have agreed that the masterpiece of the form is Frederick Douglass' first autobiography.” David W. Blight claims that “what sets Douglass's work apart in the genre … is that he interrogated the moral conscience of his readers, at the same time that he transplanted them into his story, as few other fugitive slave writers did.” But despite the Narrative's preeminent position within the slave narrative genre, until the 1970s it received little attention as a literary work, and was out of print from the 1850s until 1960. Franklin complains that the work has been neglected by literary historians and that Douglass, “one of the most important authors in nineteenth-century America, has remained a virtual nonentity outside the academic ghetto of Afro-American studies.”

In the years since Franklin's essay, however, the text has received increasing scrutiny from a wide variety of perspectives. Scholars have focused on Douglass's participation in various discourses, both black and white, including those associated with folklore and with Christianity. Kelly Rothenberg discusses Douglass's use of elements from black folklore that warn against the dangers of resistance to slavery, although he himself rejected the advice those tales offered and tried to escape despite the risks. A. James Wohlpart explores Douglass's double challenge: to the institution of slavery and also to the institution of the Christian Church that supported slavery. Douglass, claims Wohlpart, operated within the discourse of white Christianity at the same time that he subverted it. John Carlos Rowe examines Douglass's text in economic and political terms, claiming that the author was “clearly developing his own understanding of the complicity of Northern capitalism and Southern slave-holding in the 1845 Narrative.” Lisa Yun Lee also explores the politics of language in the text, noting that in the first half of the narrative Douglass is silent and powerless, but as he acquires the ability to speak within the dominant discourse, he becomes increasingly powerful and increasingly vocal. According to Lee, “the delineation between the experience of silent marginalization and speaking presence is so thoroughly presented that the binary nature of the two halves of the Narrative must be purposefully drawn.” Winifred Morgan has examined Douglass's narrative in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, claiming that there are basic gender-related differences between the two texts. According to Morgan, what distinguishes Douglass's story from Jacobs's and indeed from most other slave narratives, is the author's emphasis on his existence as an individual who achieved both literacy and freedom almost entirely on his own. Morgan believes that Douglass “sets up two contrasting frames: he presents himself as someone who is ‘one of a kind’ and at the same time ‘representative.’” Gwen Bergner discusses Douglass's narrative as a tale of masculine subject formation with parallels to the theory of the Oedipus complex established by Freud. Bergner examines Douglass's description of the whipping of his Aunt Hester whereby he became painfully aware of slavery as an institution. Bergner explains that “while psychoanalytic theory explains—by way of the Oedipus complex—how the subject apprehends sexual difference, Douglass's whipping scene demonstrates how an individual also learns racial difference.” Michael Bennett explores the link between anti-pastoralism and African-American literature and culture beginning with Douglass's narrative. According to Bennett, the usual terms of the city/country dichotomy were reversed in the Narrative because urban spaces offered a certain amount of freedom from the worst abuses of plantation slavery practiced in isolated rural areas. “For Douglass,” Bennett reports, “the city is not just relatively more free than the country, it is also a place that offers hope of the ultimate freedom: escape.”

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1845

Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852 (speech) 1852

The Heroic Slave (novella) 1853

The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered (speech) 1854

The Anti-Slavery Movement (speech) 1855

My Bondage and My Freedom (autobiography) 1855

Men of Color, to Arms! (essay) 1863

What the Black Man Wants (speech) 1865

John Brown (speech) 1881


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H. Bruce Franklin (essay date spring 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Franklin, H. Bruce. “Animal Farm Unbound Or, What the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Reveals about American Literature.” New Letters 43, no. 3 (spring 1977): 25-46.

[In the following essay, Franklin explores animal imagery in the Narrative and the role of Douglass's story in refuting the commonly held belief, particularly in the South, that slaves were incapable of producing literature.]

Prior to the Black urban rebellions of 1964-1968, what the academic establishment defined as American literature included about as many Afro-American achievements as major-league baseball did before 1947. The subsequent token...

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Robert B. Stepto (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stepto, Robert B. “Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control.” In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 45-57. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, Stepto examines the Narrative's various appended documents and revisions, noting how these authenticating texts seem to set up a dialogue with the narrative itself.]

The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing, and above all, remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature of a slave narrative. This voice is...

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Robert G. O'Meally (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Meally, Robert G. “The Text Was Meant to Be Preached.” In Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 77-94. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1978, O'Meally claims that, although the Narrative was meant to be read, it was also meant to be preached, drawing as it does on the tradition of the African-American sermon.]

Typically, scholars and teachers dealing with Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave (1845) are concerned with the crucial issue of religion, because the tensions and ironies generated by the sustained...

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Henry-Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, Henry-Louis, Jr. “Binary Oppositions in Chapter One of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave Written by Himself.” In Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto, pp. 212-32. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979.

[In the following essay, Gates discusses the way in which Douglass's narrative participated in contemporary literary conventions by setting up such binary oppositions as black/white, slave/free, ignorance/knowledge, and nature/culture.]

I was not hunting for my liberty, but also hunting for my name.


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Lucinda H. MacKethan (essay date winter 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: MacKethan, Lucinda H. “From Fugitive Slave to Man of Letters: The Conversion of Frederick Douglass.” Journal of Narrative Technique 16, no. 1 (winter 1986): 55-71.

[In the following essay, MacKethan explores Douglass's struggle to establish mastery over language and literature as a means of achieving full human and civil rights.]

To be an “American slave” was to be a man denied manhood in a country which defined men as beings endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to freedom. To be a “fugitive American slave” was to be a man seeking to claim title to the specifically American definition of man by finding a “territory” where that...

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John Burt (essay date winter 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burt, John. “Learning to Write: The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.Western Humanities Review 42, no. 4 (winter 1988): 330-44.

[In the following essay, Burt characterizes Douglass's Narrative as a declaration of citizenship.]

Frederick Douglass claimed that he began to become free when he learned to write. Part of what he meant was that in writing he found the means to see himself as himself rather than as his masters saw him.1 But he also meant that writing enabled him to cross between two different kinds of identity and two different kinds of world. One of these kinds of identity I will call “selfhood,” an identity governed...

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Donald B. Gibson (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. “Faith, Doubt, and Apostasy: Evidence of Things Unseen in Frederick Douglass's Narrative.” In Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, pp. 84-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Gibson discusses the appendix to Douglass's narrative as an attempt to conform to religious orthodoxy and to disguise the main text's hostility to Christianity.]

Strange order of things! Oh, Nature, where art thou. Are not these blacks thy children as well as we?

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur1


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John Carlos Rowe (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rowe, John Carlos. “Between Politics and Poetics: Frederick Douglass and Postmodernity.” In Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies, edited by Günter H. Lenz, Hartmut Keil, and Sabine Bröck-Sallah, pp. 192-210. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rowe discusses Douglass's Narrative as an important text not just in the literary history of America, but also in the country's political and economic history.]

Douglass has subverted the terms of the code he was meant to mediate: He has been a trickster.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


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Lisa Yun Lee (essay date summer 1991-92)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Lisa Yun. “The Politics of Language in Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave.MELUS 17, no. 2 (summer 1991-92): 51-59.

[In the following essay, Lee conducts a rhetorical analysis of Douglass's narrative as it progresses from the powerlessness of silence in the first half of the book to the power of speaking within the dominant discourse in the second half.]

In the Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Frederick Douglass recounts his rise from a black slave to an abolitionist leader. Douglass's eloquent book gives testimony to the cruelty that he and other slaves suffered. Not only is Douglass's writing...

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Donald B. Gibson (essay date winter 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. “Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self.” African American Review 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 591-603.

[In the following essay, Gibson examines Douglass's struggle to reconcile the existence of God with his own condition as a slave.]

“O God, save me! God, deliver me,
Let me be free! Is there any God?
Why am I a slave?”

(Douglass, Narrative 106-07)

“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”

(James 1:25)

The question...

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Dolan Hubbard (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hubbard, Dolan. “‘Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around’: Reading the Narrative of Frederick Douglass.” In The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, pp. 265-71. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Hubbard, an African-American university professor, describes his experiences reading and teaching Douglass's Narrative.]

Reading Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is liberating and exhilarating for me. On numerous occasions his words have lifted my...

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David W. Blight (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Blight, David W. “Introduction: ‘A Psalm of Freedom.’” In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, edited by David W. Blight, pp. 1-23. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.

[In the following introduction, Blight provides an overview of the composition and reception of Douglass's Narrative.]

Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is … the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical.

—Frederick Douglass, 1884


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Winifred Morgan (essay date fall 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, Winifred. “Gender-Related Difference in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.” American Studies 35, no. 2 (fall 1994): 73-94.

[In the following essay, Morgan compares Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and states that scholars have neglected gender-related distinctions between the two texts.]

Since the late 1960s, ante-bellum slave narratives have experienced a renaissance as dozens of the thousands still extant have been reprinted and as scholars have published major works on the sources, art, and development of the narratives; the people who produced them;...

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Kelly Rothenberg (essay date spring 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothenberg, Kelly. “Frederick Douglass' Narrative and the Subtext of Folklore.” Griot 14, no. 1 (spring 1995): 48-53.

[In the following essay, Rothenberg examines Douglass's blending of black and white folkloric elements in the Narrative.]

Much has been written on Frederick Douglass and his triumphant escape from slavery. His prose work, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is considered to be a masterpiece of personal autobiography and documentation of the “peculiar institution” known as American slavery. Almost every article written about Douglass deals with the written text as Douglass presents it,...

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A. James Wohlpart (essay date September 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wohlpart, A. James. “Privatized Sentiment and the Institution of Christianity: Douglass's Ethical Stance in the Narrative.American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 181-94.

[In the following essay, Wohlpart suggests that Douglass's relationship to Christianity is more complicated than many critics believe, suggesting that in the Narrative the author operates within accepted religious discourse while at the same time subverting it.]

In his “Introduction” to Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, published in 1991, William L. Andrews rightly concludes in relation to the 1845 version of Douglass's autobiography that...

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Lisa Sisco (essay date September 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sisco, Lisa. “‘Writing in the Spaces Left’: Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass.” American Transcendental Quarterly 9, no. 3 (September 1995): 195-227.

[In the following essay, Sisco discusses Douglass's ambivalent feelings towards literacy, and his struggle to find an acceptable narrative voice in his works. Sisco also examines Douglass's search for a new identity in post-Civil War America.]

In a vague, sentimental way, we love books inordinately, even though we do not know how to read them, for we know that books are the gateway to the forbidden world. Any black man who can read a book is a hero...

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Gwen Bergner (essay date winter 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bergner, Gwen. “Myths of the Masculine Subject: The Oedipus Complex and Douglass's 1845 Narrative.Discourse 19, no. 2 (winter 1997): 53-71.

[In the following essay, Bergner draws parallels between the identity formation present in Douglass's Narrative and Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex.]

No pre-emancipation text by an African-American has enjoyed as much currency as Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Long considered the paradigm text of African-American slave identity, Douglass's Narrative was a forceful testament for the abolition...

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Patricia J. Ferreira (essay date spring 2001)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ferreira, Patricia J. “Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Dublin Edition of His Narrative.New Hibernia Review 5, no. 1 (spring 2001): 53-67.

[In the following essay, Ferreira discusses how Douglass developed his position as a visionary and a leader during a six-month stay in Ireland.]

The year 1845 was pivotal for Frederick Douglass. With urging from friends in the Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, he published his autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Although already recognized as the preeminent antislavery authority on the abolitionist lecture circuit, when Douglass issued his life story as a book, he gave his life...

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Michael Bennett (essay date 2001)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bennett, Michael. “Anti-Pastoralism, Frederick Douglass, and the Nature of Slavery.” In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, pp. 195-210. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

[In the following essay, Bennett discusses Douglass's Narrative as an antipastoral text that privileges the freedom associated with urban spaces over the rural areas linked to the worst abuses of plantation slavery.]

If we separate the term “ecocriticism” into its two components, its parameters seem clear: “criticism,” engaging in analytical reading practices, and...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Anderson, Douglas. “The Textual Reproductions of Frederick Douglass.” Clio 27, no. 1 (fall 1997): 57-87.

Explores the literary and dramatic qualities of Douglass's various representations of self.

Crowley, John W. “Slaves to the Bottle: Gough's Autobiography and Douglass's Narrative.” In The Serpent in the Cup: Temperance in American Literature, edited by David S. Reynolds and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 115-35. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Discusses common traits in John Bartholomew Gough's temperance narrative and Frederick Douglass's slave narrative, both of which...

(The entire section is 543 words.)