Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, is an autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a famous escaped slave-turned-abolitionist. In the book, Douglass gives an account of his life as a slave in Maryland from childhood to young adulthood. The book records his developing thoughts about slavery and freedom over his years as a slave. Towards the end, it also records the events after he successfully escaped from slavery and moved to the North. The work is an exposition of the evils of slavery, and Douglass reflects upon the suffering he and other slaves have experienced and argues throughout his story that slavery must be abolished. As Frederick Douglass was one of the most prominent abolitionists, he has become an academically studied figure, and literary criticism of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass has been published. Douglass’s narrative is powerful due to his use of certain rhetorical strategies, which include appealing to common values, expressing his emotions and individuality, and depicting a complex journey towards desiring and then attaining freedom.
Douglass tells of his life in a tone that is formal, reflecting the subject matter and time period, but also personal, emotional, and open. Despite the formal language, he lapses into sarcasm at times, such as when criticizing the hypocrisy of cruel slave treatment among self-professed Christians; one example is when he states, “it is almost an unpardonable offence to teach slaves to read in this Christian country” (Douglass 36). He gives descriptive portrayals of his work, the places he lived, and especially his various masters. From the beginning of the narrative, Douglass is very open about the terrible cruelties he witnessed and experienced; this includes both physical ones such as whipping, and emotional ones such as his separation from his family. He describes certain points in his life that he sees as important in his journey towards eventual freedom, such as his learning to read and an altercation he had with an abusive master to assert that he would not be mistreated. His deep emotions are displayed in passages describing occurrences that were important to him, such as when he heard slaves sing songs and when he taught some fellow slaves to read. He often connects his anecdotes to more general facts and thoughts about slavery. The narrative is both a document of Douglass’s personal experience and one of contemporary Southern society, and Douglass skillfully weaves these subjective and objective elements of his story together. After its publication, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a bestseller and was praised by critics; the book probably helped to garner some support for its abolitionist cause.
Douglass aligned his story with certain values that are or were widespread in American culture. In William Andrews’s critical work To Tell A Free Story, Andrews examines the narrative’s style as an “American jeremiad” (Andrews 123), meaning a lament that expresses belief in the U.S. and appeals to American values. Andrews notes that one of the common American values that Douglass aligned his story with is righteous rebellion. Douglass is clearly a rebel as an escaped slave, but he expresses that his cause of freedom and justice is a good one: “the rebellion of a fractious individual against instituted authority is translated into a heroic act of self-reliance, a re-enactment of the national myth of regeneration and progress through revolution” (Andrews 124). Another value that Douglass associates his story with is religion, and most Americans of the time were quite religious. Andrews writes, “[a]s several critics have noted, Douglass’s Narrative seems to have been consciously drawn up along structural and metaphorical lines familiar to readers of spiritual autobiographies” (Andrews 125). These spiritual undertones portray Douglass as a soul who was innocent and surrounded by sin, but supported by divine forces. These undertones likely would have appealed to a mostly religious audience, as they portrayed Douglass’s cause as one that was supported by Christianity. Andrews also analyzes the section in which Douglass hires his time as a calker, and notes that this section aligns with another American value: economic responsibility. By finding his own work and making money that rightfully should have been his, “Douglass qualifies himself as an economic revolutionary in the best American tradition” (Andrews 128).
What is important is that Douglass does not just make an explicit appeal to these values; rather, he weaves them into his narrative in a subtle way. This is an effective technique, and Douglass’s use of it is a testament to his skill as a writer. Douglass could have stated outright that the reader should support him because his cause is associated with righteous rebellion, Christianity, and economic responsibility. However, this might have made many readers dismiss Douglass’s argument, feeling that he had tried to manipulate them by taking advantage of their values for his own benefit. Instead of saying that he is a righteous rebel, Douglass simply shows that he had to escape (and break the law) to be free. Instead of saying that he went through a Christian journey, Douglass uses less overt religious imagery, such as mentioning “the entrance to the hell of slavery” and “a special interposition of divine Providence” (Douglass 30). Instead of saying that he became economically responsible and thus deserved to be free, Douglass simply shows that he was successful at finding work and earning money when he was allowed to hire his time. These more subtle affirmations of popular American values would likely have appealed to an American audience on a deeper, less conscious level.
Another thing Andrews mentions is that Douglass portrays the North as more equal than it really was, and avoids mentioning the existence of racism there: “Douglass would censor himself and say nothing of more humiliating Jim Crow experiences that he had been subjected to in the North” (Andrews 130-131). Andrews’s explanation is that Douglass had “a rhetorical stake in a dramatic contrast between North and South” (Andrews 130), since portraying the North as fair would highlight the unfairness he had shown from the South. However, it seems likely that Douglass also did this to appeal to another common American bias: the belief that all of the U.S. cannot be unjust, and some of it, at least, must be a good society.
Douglass is emotionally open throughout his narrative, which helps the reader see his individuality and feel a connection with him. Andrews remarks on this in To Tell A Free Story: “Douglass’s narrative is freely laced with both positive and negative expressive, utterances through which Douglass not only asserts a proposition about something but also conditions his reader’s response to that assertion by couching it in an expression of his psychological state as he makes the assertion” (Andrews 102). By doing so, Douglass shows that he is not just a generic, submissive slave; he is a person, who had his own unique feelings and reactions to the experiences that came with being enslaved. By sharing how the conditions of slavery affected him personally, Douglass helps the reader to move beyond simple knowledge of slavery and to sympathize with the human side of the issue as well.
Andrews notes that Douglass places very little importance on the moment of his escape compared to most slave narratives before him. The escape had been the “stock-in-trade climax of the slave narrative”, and it often “left white readers with a vicarious sense of the thrill of the chase as well as the relief of the successful escape” and served as a “factual parallel to the capture-flight-and-pursuit plots of their favorite romance novels” (Andrews 128-9). However, Douglass gives no details of his escape (in order not to endanger other runaway slaves). Instead, he treats “his assumption of a new identity as a free man” and “integration into the American mainstream” in the North as the story’s “high point” (Andrews 129). This is presumably because he remembers this point in his life as being a better one than his escape. It might seem that this choice would have made readers less interested Douglass’s story, as he left out the exciting and sympathy-inducing escape scene that was a popular part of other slave narratives. However, in a way, this choice actually makes Douglass easier to connect to. Few if any law-abiding white Americans had had experiences of escape and pursuit, so while an adventurous escape scene might have been exciting, it would have been very hard for most readers to relate to. It would have made Douglass seem less real and more distant, like a romanticized character in a thrilling fictional novel. Douglass instead places importance on being an accepted member of society, which is a more mundane concern that many white Americans probably cared about in their own lives. This likely helped many readers relate to Douglass and see a similarity between him and themselves.
Another crucial factor of the narrative is that Douglass does not oversimplify his experience, portraying his slave life as a complex journey that included several steps on the road to freedom. One of the first steps is when Douglass is a boy in the home of Hugh and Sophia Auld, and Hugh forbids his wife from teaching Douglass to read, which only increases Douglass’s motivation to learn. Andrews interprets this as “the way [Douglass] began to define himself via defiance of his master” (Andrews 13). However, what Andrews does not make clear is that Douglass’s desire to disobey his master did not simply come from defiance; it came from a sentimental and revelatory moment. Douglass states that Hugh’s words prohibiting him from learning to read “sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought”, which led to him figuring out “the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (Douglass 32), presumably meaning that this power came from denying black people knowledge. Hugh’s “str[iving] to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction” (Douglass 33) showed Douglass that his learning to read would have significance. Hugh wanted ignorance and subservience from Douglass, while Douglass himself wanted awareness and autonomy. Since their desires were opposites, Douglass figured out that he could gain his desires if he did the opposite of what Hugh wanted him to. Thus, his learning to read may have been partly motivated by rebellion against his master’s authority, but it was also motivated by Douglass’s independent effort towards his own goals.
In Timothy Barnett’s article “Politicizing the Personal: Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Some Thoughts on the Limits of Critical Literacy”, Barnett examines Douglass’s reading of the Columbian Orator, and how it helps him “re-evaluate his life” by showing him logical arguments that can be made against slavery. This was another important step on his journey, as it “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul” (Douglass 36); the book showed him that his anti-slavery feelings were supported not only by his subjective experiences of suffering, but also by objective intellectual reasoning. Barrett notes that the Orator helps Douglass to look at the issue of slavery in a more detached way. However, this view of the issue “brings him so close to the intense pain of slavery that he becomes almost suicidal” (Barrett 361), and Barrett finds it paradoxical that becoming more distant from the issue makes it more difficult to deal with. His explanation is that “Douglass feels even more vividly than before the visceral immediacy of being in the “pit” of slavery,” as he has seen it for what it really is. This is a good partial explanation, but it is also possible that Douglass’s pain at this point has to do with his realization that slavery is objectively wrong. Before this, he could simply have believed that slavery was only wrong in his opinion, or the way it was practiced on his plantation network. Once he realized that logic confirmed the evil of slavery, he had to confront the difficult fact that he and many others across the South were being used in a system that was objectively evil. Although this realization was difficult, it seems to be an important one that strengthened his hope to become free.
Another prominent step of Douglass’s journey was when he successfully fought off Covey, the aforementioned abusive master. In Len Gougeon’s article “Militant Abolitionism: Douglass, Emerson, and the Rise of the Anti-Slave”, Gougeon states that “[m]ost critics agree that Douglass’s Narrative culminates in his struggle with Covey… and the personal transformation it precipitates” (Gougeon 634). It is true that the fight is a central point in Douglass’s story; he refers to it as “the turning-point in my career as a slave” (Douglass 55) and “how a slave was made a man” (Douglass 52). However, it is overly simplistic to say that this fight alone precipitated a personal change in Douglass. In fact, the fight was one part of a change – his growing dedication to freedom – that had been occurring over a long period of time, likely starting in childhood when he first “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 33) after being banned from learning to read. After the fight, Douglass notes that it “inspired me again with a determination to be free” (Douglass 55); the word “again” shows that his commitment to becoming free had already developed earlier, but was renewed by the incident.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is certainly an engaging story that shows many terrible aspects of slavery. However, there is more to it than just a sequence of events: several interesting choices that Douglass made when writing the narrative can be observed. These include appealing to the values that were widely held in the U.S., displaying an emotionally open and unique perspective on his experiences to seem relatable, and showing that his journey to freedom was a complex one with many steps. These strategies help to make the book an exemplary work among literature that calls for social change, as well as a popular subject of literary criticism. It is unfortunate that many people in 1845 did not see slavery as immoral, and they needed to be convinced that it was. However, it is a true testament to Douglass’s intelligence that he was able to use these circumstances as an opportunity to make his case against slavery in an effective and enduring book.
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