There Was Once a Slave … Critical Essays

Shirley Graham


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

As the book’s subtitle implies, Graham aims from the outset to present a heroic portrait of a striking historical figure. Douglass’ story is inspiring in itself; Graham uses style, dramatic structure and language to heighten the inherent emotional impact. Throughout the book, the language is thick, florid, evocative, and poetic. There is extensive use of metaphor, and the lofty vocabulary of political revolution and moral purpose is prominent. By juxtaposing Douglass’ personal story with the larger history of the nation, Graham invests her subject with great dimension and power. The detachment of the narrative voice allows Douglass to appear larger than life and avoids the necessity of examining his failings and weaknesses. The tone is often breathless and exuberant when describing Douglass or his actions. Superlatives are abundant, and moments and objects are given symbolic power in order to magnify their importance. For example, the process by which Douglass chooses his name is enlarged into a metaphor for the attainment of identity.

Douglass is presented as a magical, magnetic, and charismatic figure who seems incapable of mistakes. All who come into contact with him during the course of his life have an immediate and intuitive response, recognizing his inner strength, beauty, and wisdom. In such moments, Douglass himself is not presented dynamically, and his power is communicated by the response that it elicits from others, even notable...

(The entire section is 487 words.)