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
by Frederick Douglass

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(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...

(The entire section is 142,394 words.)