Form and Content
In 1841, three years after Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he launched his career as an abolitionist. In Nantucket, Massachusetts, he spoke for the first time about his slave experiences before a white audience. Before that, he had told his story only to black gatherings. So impressive was his account that he was hired as a full-time antislavery lecturer by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
By 1844, the society was becoming increasingly disturbed that many were doubting Douglass’s authenticity. His critics saw him as being too refined and too erudite for a man who had escaped from slavery only six years previously. The leaders of the Anti-Slavery Society, therefore, urged Douglass to write his story.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, including a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from Wendell Phillips, was published in 1845. Its success was immediate. Thousands of copies were sold both in the United States and in Great Britain. The Narrative was even translated into French and Dutch.
Just as there were those who doubted Douglass’s oral accounts of his experiences in slavery, there were those who declared the written version a hoax. Such an accusation was not as farfetched as it might at first seem. Many slave narratives were not only transcribed but also organized and revised by white abolitionists. The latter, however, were generally careful to indicate the extent of their assistance. They recognized that to do otherwise was to put the whole antislavery movement in jeopardy. The Narrative, for its part, is a notable exception. Frederick Douglass neither asked for nor received any help from white abolitionists.
The decision to divide the work into two main sections was his. The first part consists of nine chapters. These detail Douglass’s experiences in slavery. The second section, with two chapters, is as long as the first and describes Douglass’s escape. This organization seems to indicate that the first nine chapters form a kind of prelude to the main action—Douglass’s escape from slavery.
Before this escape takes place, readers are given a graphic account of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Douglass begins his narrative with his birth in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland. The second sentence states that he does not know his age. This is followed by other details about which the narrator is unsure. For example, although he knows that Harriet Bailey is his mother, he has very little communication with her. She dies when he is seven years old; before that, he sees her only four or five times. He lives with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey, on the outskirts of Edward Lloyd’s plantation.
The young boy is introduced to the horrors of slavery when he witnesses the beating of his Aunt Hester by their master, Aaron Anthony, soon after Frederick begins living on the plantation. This beating is only the first of many at which the young Frederick is both observer and participant. Frederick later goes to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld. He considers this move providential, since it sets the stage for his eventual escape from slavery. Sophia Auld begins to teach him to read, and by the time her husband finds out and objects, it is already too late; the young slave has made the connection between literacy and freedom.
There is now no turning back for the city slave. Thus, when Frederick is sent to live with Thomas Auld because of a quarrel between the brothers, Thomas cannot control him. He sends him to Edward Covey, a “nigger-breaker.” The stay at Covey’s marks another pivotal point in the young slave’s journey from bondage to freedom; when Covey attempts to beat Douglass, he defends himself and fights the older man to a standoff.
If Covey is the worst master Frederick has encountered, his next, William Freeland, is the best. With Freeland, Frederick, with his eyes on freedom as never before, teaches a Sabbath school of more than forty slaves. Here, too, he plans an aborted escape. After the failed escape, Frederick is again returned to Hugh Auld in Baltimore. Auld oversees his training as a caulker. With this trade comes increasing independence and a small taste of freedom.
This taste of freedom prepares Douglass for his life after slavery. After a successful escape, Frederick keeps his past shrouded in mystery; he is afraid of unwittingly divulging any information to slaveholders.
Frederick Douglass, having discarded the name given him by the mother he hardly knew, settles in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with his new wife, Anna, and joins the abolitionist cause.