Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Additional Summary

Frederick Douglass


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

There are about six thousand records in existence of slaves who either wrote their own stories or told them to others. Of these works, commonly known as slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is nearly universally considered to be the most compelling and well written. Douglass went on to write two more autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), to found several abolitionist magazines—most notably North Star—and to become the greatest African American orator and statesman of his age. However, he is primarily known for his first book, which he wrote before the age of thirty and despite the fact that he had never gone to school. Douglass’s autobiography came to be one of the most frequently taught books at American colleges and universities, where together with Moby Dick (1851), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852) it was regarded as a seminal source for understanding the United States in the antebellum period of the nineteenth century.

Douglass’s story began humbly. Douglass describes how, as a young boy growing up as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, he never knew his age or the identity of his father. Slave owners did not consider it necessary to tell slaves such facts or to try to keep families together. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was separated from him when he was an infant. Douglass saw her only four or five times during his life, and then only at night when she paid surreptitious visits from the plantation twelve miles away where she was sold; she always had to leave before her young son woke up, and she died when Douglass was seven.

It is possible that the man who owned Douglass, Captain Anthony, was his father. Owners often took sexual advantage of their slave women, and as a boy, Douglass saw his master beat his Aunt Hester out of jealousy because a slave from a neighboring plantation paid attention to her. The pain slaves experienced from mistreatment and beatings often led them to sing songs with “words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon” but which conveyed the depths of their hardship. Such songs were their only outlet for expression.

Throughout his childhood on the plantation, Douglass (who did not then have a last name and was simply known as Frederick) witnessed many acts of cruelty, ranging from unjust beatings to unwarranted and unpunished murder of slaves by white owners or their overseers. As a child, he owned only one shirt, had to sleep on the ground, and ate his meals of corn mush from a common trough. It was his good fortune to be sent to Baltimore to the home of Hugh Auld, a relation of Captain Anthony. There, he not only enjoyed better living conditions but also was closer to the North. Had he not been sent to Baltimore, Douglass might never have escaped slavery.

In Baltimore, Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass his abc’s. When Mr. Auld discovered this, he was furious, telling her that teaching a slave how to read was the quickest way to “spoil” him. Deciding that anything his master deemed bad must be good for him, Douglass became determined to teach himself to read. He devised a way to trick other little boys into inadvertently giving him lessons by pretending to know more than they did and making them prove otherwise.

By the age of twelve, Douglass could read essays from a book of famous speeches he acquired. Reading, however, showed him for the first time the true injustice of his own position. For the first time, he realized that there were people opposed to slavery and that there were compelling arguments against the practice. He resolved to run away as soon as he was old enough and the right opportunity presented itself.

Along with understanding the potential power inherent in the ability to read—nothing less than “the power of the white man to enslave...

(The entire section is 1639 words.)

Chapter 1 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Before the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave begins, the reader is provided with a...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In this chapter, Douglass continues to describe the conditions of being a slave on a plantation owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd, who owns a...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Douglass describes different aspects of Colonel Lloyd's plantation. He begins with a description of Lloyd's garden, whose tasty fruits tempt...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

This chapter recounts a number of cruel and dehumanizing punishments that plantation slaves suffer at the hands of overseers such as Mr....

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Here Douglass provides details of his treatment while living on the plantation of Colonel Lloyd. Because of his young age, he does not have...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Sophia Auld is described as being a kind and generous woman who never has owned a slave. She is a weaver by trade. Unlike most women of that...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In this chapter, Douglass tells the reader that he lived with his master and mistress in Baltimore for seven years. Early on he realizes that...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

This short chapter covers significant changes in Douglass' life, as he tries to cope with his unstable position of a slave. Soon after moving...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In March 1832, Douglass leaves Baltimore to live with Thomas Auld, whom Douglass knows from Colonel Lloyd's plantation. Auld and his new wife...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In the longest chapter of the narrative, Douglass reveals some of the most distressing and empowering moments of his life as a slave. He...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

In his last chapter, Douglass achieves his goal of attaining freedom in the North. Working as a caulker provides Douglass with a number of...

(The entire section is 625 words.)