Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Analysis

Frederick Douglass

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

After escaping from slavery, Frederick Bailey changed his name to Frederick Douglass and became a prominent speaker in the abolitionist movement. He was so eloquent that proslavery opponents charged him with being a fraud who had never been a slave and challenged him to reveal the true facts of his life. Such an account was dangerous for Douglass, who could have been captured and returned to slavery for life, but he proceeded to write in specific detail the account of his experience as a slave, in order to reveal the inhumanity of that “peculiar institution” and help bring about its overthrow. Prefaced with an essay by William Lloyd Garrison and with a letter by Wendell Phillips, both leading abolitionists, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself is told in straightforward chronology and a clear style, with a wealth of realistic detail.

Douglass’ father was a white man, rumored to be his master, and one of the abominations of slavery that Douglass denounced was the common practice of white men forcing slave women to be their mistresses and begetting children whom they never acknowledged, whom they owned and could flog or sell at whim. As an infant, Douglass was separated from his mother, whom he saw only a few times before she died. He had to endure the horror of seeing his aunt repeatedly flogged and to know that such a fate was in store for him. On a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass never had enough food, clothing, or shelter, and he had to sleep on the ground in an unheated shack. He saw fellow slaves killed with impunity, as the law did not punish the murder of a slave. Fortunately, he was lent to Hugh Auld, a relative of his master in Baltimore, where he was better provided for and where punishment was less brutal.

It was then illegal to teach a slave literacy, but Douglass’ mistress in Baltimore, Sophia Auld, responded to his pleas to teach him to read and write in the hope that the boy could get to know the Bible. When his master found out, he stopped the lessons, arguing that “Learning would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Douglass then bribed white boys to teach him. Reading newspapers and books gave him a broader perspective than the slaveholder’s view, which was the only one available to most slaves. At the age of thirteen, Douglass bought The Columbian Orator, which contained eloquent speeches denouncing oppression. Increasingly, he felt the pain of having a free mind trapped in a slave’s body. When he read an article about organized efforts to abolish slavery, Douglass began to have hope. At that time, however, he was sent back to the Eastern Shore to work on Thomas Auld’s plantation, where because of his intelligence and independent spirit, he was sent to work for a local slave breaker, Edward Covey. For the next six months, he was flogged every week, and the brutal work and discipline broke him “in body, soul and spirit.” Finally, he decided to fight back. Douglass refused to submit to any more flogging, saying that he would resist to the death. He and Covey fought to a standoff. For Douglass’ nerve, Covey could have killed him or had him killed with impunity. Douglass wondered why he did not but concluded that it would spoil Covey’s reputation as a tough slave breaker.

After two years on the Eastern Shore and one unsuccessful attempt to escape, Douglass was sent back to Baltimore to work again for Hugh Auld. This time, he met a number of free African Americans, including Anna Murray, with whom he fell in love. The day that they became engaged, Douglass escaped to New York, where Anna joined him and they were married.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Douglass wrote the Narrative, the United States was becoming divided over the issue of slavery. In...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The lasting political, emotional, and dramatic power of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass stems not only from the highly...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1840s: Douglass and other abolitionists campaign around the country to abolish slavery, speaking of its horrors and promoting the...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In the 1840s, when Douglass wrote his antislavery narrative, the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum in both the United States and...

(The entire section is 321 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Frederick Douglass, part of Biography Series, available from A & E Television Network, is a fifty-minute video exploring the life...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (1964), is a stunning record of one man's ability to educate...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Andrews, William L., and William S. McFeely, eds., Preface, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An...

(The entire section is 598 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Normal: University of Illinois Press, 1986. A comprehensive account of slave narratives, which includes an extensive interpretation of Douglass’ writings.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1892. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Douglass’ last autobiography, which covers his life story through his ambassadorship to Haiti.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987. Contains narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Harriet Jacobs, in addition to that of Douglass, as well as an excellent short introduction to the form.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Offers a succinct and lucid biography for the general reader; Huggins is a good storyteller.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Presents a comprehensive biography with an excellent bibliography. McFeely is particularly good in describing Douglass’ relationship with family and friends.

O’Meally, Robert G. “Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative: The Text Was Meant to Be Preached.” In Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by D. Fisher and R. Stepto. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979. Argues that the Narrative has recognizable affinities with the sermons of black preachers. The audience, according to O’Meally, is white, and “preacher” Douglass is exhorting them to end the abysmal institution of slavery.

Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Provides detailed descriptions of all important personages in the Narrative. Preston is in familiar territory, and his depiction of Douglass’ relationship with those around him is illuminating.

Quarles, Benjamin. Frederick Douglass. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Presents an excellent first chapter that demonstrates how Douglass’ years in slavery influenced his later life. The epigraphs that introduce each chapter, most of which are by Douglass, give a sense of the man and his age.

Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in History. 1947. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988. The first book about the slave narrative as a form and a good introduction to its historical importance.

Sundquist, Eric L. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Scholarly interpretations of Douglass’ life and writings.