Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (Norton Critical Editions Series) / Edition 1

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Upon its publication in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself became an immediate best-seller.
In addition to its far-reaching impact on the antislavery movement in the United States and abroad, Douglass’s fugitive slave narrative won recognition for its literary excellence, which has since earned it a place among the classics of nineteenth-century American autobiography. This Norton Critical Edition reprints the 1845 first edition of Douglass’s compelling work. Explanatory annotations accompany the text.
A rich selection of "Contexts" provides the reader with contemporary perspectives. Included are the little-known preface that Douglass wrote in 1846 for the second Irish edition; a public exchange of letters between A. C. C. Thompson, a former slaveholder, and Douglass; three autobiographical portraits of Douglass's parents; Douglass’s account of his escape from slavery, which he chose not to include in the 1845 Narrative; samples of Douglass’s use of his slave experience in two of his most influential antislavery speeches; and reminiscences by James Monroe Gregory and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Douglass as both orator and friend.
"Criticism" collects six essential assessments of the Narrative’s historical and literary aspects, by William S. McFeely, Peter Ripley, Robert B. Stepto, William L. Andrews, Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Deborah E. McDowell. A Chronology and a Selected Bibliography are included.

Born into slavery from a white father, Frederick Douglass secretly taught himself to read and write--a crime punishable by death--and thus passed on to us this eloquent indictment of the institution of slavery.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A century and a half after its first publication, Frederick Douglass's Narrative retains its hold on us, capturing us with its first-person story of the abolitionist's passage from bondage to freedom.
Sacred Life

When it was first published, many critics doubted that The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass had even been written by Frederick Douglass. As odd as it may seem now, that criticism was not completely unfounded: In the mid-nineteenth century, the antislavery movement produced hundreds of slave narratives, many of them ghostwritten by white abolitionists and tailored to create sympathy for their movement. But this book, by this remarkable man, was different. The tag line at the end of the book&#39s subtitle&#8212Written by Himself &#8212was vitally important. Although clearly written with the abolitionist cause in mind, this book is not merely a political tract. True, its dispassionate prose brought to light the "injustice, exposure to outrage, and savage barbarity" of slavery as Douglass observed and experienced But also brought to life an uncommon man and the particular concerns seared into him during his experience of bondage. Douglass recounts that during slavery, he and his people were denied life&#39s fundamentals: faith, family, education, the capacity for bold action, a sense of community, and personal identity. Douglass saw reclamation of these things as the key to his and his people&#39s survival, redemption, and salvation.

The autobiography opens with a description of the aspects of his own life that Douglass was never allowed to know: the identity of his father, the warmth and care of his mother (who was a stranger to him), and even the fact of his own date of birth. As a child, he suffered from and observed savage beatings firsthand, including the fierce beating of his Aunt Hester at the hands of their master, Captain Aaron Anthony. As he grew older, Douglass liberated himself in stages: mentally, spiritually, and, eventually, physically. His mental freedom began when he was taught to read and write and realized the power of literacy; his spiritual freedom came when he discovered the grace of Christianity and the will to resist his beatings; his physical freedom arrived when he finally escaped to the North.

After escaping, Douglass was committed to telling the world about the condition of the brothers and sisters he left behind. Aside from telling Douglass&#39s personal story, his autobiography takes us to the fields and the cabins and the lives of many slaves to reveal the real human cost of slavery. Douglass focused on the dehumanizing aspects of slavery: not just the beatings, but the parting of children from their mothers, the denial of education, and the sexual abuses of slave masters. He ends the book with this statement: "Sincerely and earnestly hoping that his little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds&#8212faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts&#8212and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass."

The book was an incredible success: It sold over thirty thousand copies and was an international bestseller. It was the first, and most successful, of three autobiographies that Douglass was to write. The other two, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, update the story of his life and revise some of the facts of his earlier autobiography.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393969665
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/28/1996
  • Series: Norton Critical Editions Series
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 264,821
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Frederick Douglass

William L. Andrews (Ph.D. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) is the editor of The Literature of Slavery and Freedom; co-editor of The Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance. He is E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is general editor of Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography and The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, and co-editor of The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Other works include The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt; To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865; Sisters of the Spirit; The Curse of Caste by Julia C. Collins; Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave; and Slave Narratives after Slavery.

William S. McFeely, the Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Grant. He lives in Wellfleet and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      Tuckahoe, Maryland
    1. Date of Birth:
    1. Date of Death:
      February 20, 1895
    2. Place of Death:
      Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy….Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion. -- from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 81 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 181 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2004

    Frederick Douglass was an amazing oralist and writer.

    Frederick Douglass was an amazing oralist and writer. In the 'Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass,' he brought this story to life. Every emotion that he felt, you feel. When slaves were killed by their overseers, his narration makes you feel as if you were right there with the same suspense and horror the other slaves felt. When he was a young boy and watched the barbaric beating of his aunt Hester, his details were so vivid. And, when he stated 'I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet,' I wanted to be in that closet hiding with him. The articulation that he possesses is amazing. The fact that this story was written by a former slave, would allow you the impression that it would not be easy to decipher. This is not the case at all. His verbage was clear and easy to follow. This story was truly inspirational!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2010

    A Must Read

    Over the years many times I have heard reference to this book but had never read it. I picked it up out of curiosity and to be honest because it was on the bargain table, but this small book of the slave story and later writings, speeches and lectures of Mr. Frederick Douglass are a real treasure and a must read. His words and life cut to the heart as you hear him tell what he experienced as a man held in bondage.
    The terror, fear and brutal cruelty of the times and the daily suffering of slaves, men, women and children,is sad,unbelievable, but true.
    It also sheds a light on the attitudes and thinking of slave owners.
    Learning to read was the spark in young Frederick that set him on his long and hard path to freedom.I found it interesting to read about the different people and chance encounters that brought him to a free state and eventually to be able to speak so strongly and beautifully against slavery as an evil against God and against our fellow human beings.
    This narritive is a powerful and thought provoking read.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2005

    In case you din't know this about slavery...

    This book felt as cold water on my face. It made me aware of the profound impact of slavery in all the entities that were part of it. Slaves and masters became victims of the same pest. Through the chapters of this book we able to observe the mental deformation that slavery causes in slaveholders. Using very clear and full of emotions narrative, Frederick Douglas allow us to share, in some way, his journey towards freedom. Moreover, he also succeeds in communicating the greatness of his spirit, determination and faith. I truly recommend this book to everyone that wants to increase awareness in how we become blind to injustice and suffering.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2014

    Tell me

    Tell me if this is a good school report.
    Ello! Im kanaja. I belive by what misstress told me i am 16. I was born i te didder plantation. My job on the plantation is being a nanny.but one day i heard a song it was"when that old charriot comes im gonna leave you.when that old charriot comes friends whos coming with me?"i started to cry but then i said when that old charriot comes i going with you. Then we ssid we were going to escape when it was stormy.see you in my next post;)

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2014


    When i was assigned to read this for history my first thought was: ughh this is gonna make me fall asleep like the other books i have been forced to read BUT this actually turned out to be a good book I was appalled by the abuse that Frederick Doughlass had to go through as a slave and it is very interesting how he vividly remembers his time in bondage If you ever have the urge to read a book about the harsh realities of slavery, definately read this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2010

    very informative for school report

    Well written, and informative--I give this book a thumbs up.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2008

    Great Book

    This is a jaw dropping stpry that displays a great picture in your head. I thought that Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a very informational book. It showed how rough it was in the 1800¿s. Frederick Douglass struggled through watching and receiving many beatings. His masters were treating him awful and he couldn¿t do much to anything about it. As the story goes on Frederick Douglass gets sent around to differnt farms to work. At all of the farms he encounters at least one enemy. Overall ths stroy is full of infomation and is very powerful

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2007

    A reviewer

    Reading sections of Douglass' narrative gave me chills and made me think about the way African Americans were treated by white masters. This book gave me ideas of the hardships the African Americans faced when shipped from town to town and master to master. The words in Douglass' speech at the anti-slavery convention show his intelligence and views of being an Abolitionist. I recommend this book to any person willing or wanting to learn about slavery of African Americans in the 19th century.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2005

    Very inspiring!

    Part of my reading curriculum for my Oral Communications class, I loved it so much I had everyone in my family read it!!! Definitely recommend to those looking for a good book on slaves and slavery.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2004


    This is such an inspirational story. It is well written and easy to read. You can feel the tension, dismay and sorrow as Mr. Douglas narrates the different things that he had to go through. His story show how faith, courage and determination made him a victor.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2004

    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself

    Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in the year 1818. During the reign of his life, he escaped slavery, became renowned for his great cause of liberty and served the national government. His work in the hope for freedom and an end to slavery brought him in contact with many different abolitionists and social reformers. Fredrick Douglas spoke throughout the US and England on the immorality and cruelness of slavery. Fredrick had a personal relationship with President Lincoln and persuaded him to make emancipation a cause for the Civil War. He also was a part in recruiting African American troops for the Union Army. While still held in slavery Douglass met a free African American Woman, and they soon married after his escaped to his freedom. When his first wife passed away, Douglass soon married his secretary, Helen Pitts. There was much controversy over this marriage because Helen was wife. Douglass handled this outrage by defending himself by saying he had honored his mothers race because his first wife was black, and he was now honoring his fathers race because his father was white. In 1872 Douglass moved to Washington D.C. he worked as a publisher that helped promote the work of showing the American people the positions of African Americans in the post Emancipation period. Douglass also shortly served the position of president at Freedman¿s National Bank and other various national service positions. I really enjoyed this reading about the Life of Fredrick Douglass simply because I had no idea who this person was when assigned to read about him, and found out that he was actually a very interesting person. I love history so this was a biography that I truly enjoyed. This man was so broad and intelligent; that no one review about his life can sum it up.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2004


    A story of complete success which never allows the reader to wander. The amount of life and determination this man represented were outstanding, and will keep you focused throughout. This book serves a dual purpose in my opinion in that it not only gives an account of the slave life, but that of the possibility of, and eventual 'free life'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2004

    Though Narrative is True...

    The author brings the reader to that moment in time--slavery--with his vivid recollection of experiences and incidents! Douglass leaves us to wonder if we could ever endure times that he did! Though this narrative is true, even as a middle-aged African American -- this narrative is beyond my comprehension! Maybe I can't relate because I hesitate to place myself in that moment with Douglas! Truly Inspiring!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2004

    Really brings the reader into the story.

    Dogulass's detailed discription of the events really allows the reader into his mind and into his world. The book really captured my attention and I couldn't stop reading it. It's a very sad yet uplifting story on the determination of the human spirit that we all have within us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2004

    Very Interesting piece

    I enjoyed this piece of literature. It was well witten and vivid. I could see what is going on and I can feel the writers emotions. I recommend this book if you are into the history of slavery and African American literature.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2004

    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself

    Born in 1818 and dying in 1895, Fredrick Douglass led a life of courage, wisdom and faith. Douglass was born into slavery on the Eastern shore of Maryland. With no formal schooling Douglass became self-educated by reading anything that he could find available. Ultimately, when Douglass could no longer handle slavery, he disguised himself as a sailor and escaped. Being only twenty at the time of his escape from slavery, Douglass found him self in New York on his way to an exciting career that would change History. Douglass became a strong Abolitionist orator, writer, publisher and Government official. He published three auto-biographical books. The earliest book titled the Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass, was a self written biography that was to show the readers what kind of horrible crimes that were inflicted on slaves. This book is still one the best slave narratives considered by many. Fredrick Douglass was an excellent speaker, and gave amazing speeches that moved his audiences. He dramatically pressed in his speaking for freedom and independence for all slaves. Fredrick Douglass was a very powerful and courageous man that fought for what he believed in. He fought for many peoples freedom, which is more than any words can describe. A motto Douglass created said, ¿Right is of no sex and truth is of no color.¿ This is still a motto that some people in the world are fighting for today, but at least we as a society had powerful leaders like Fredrick Douglass to pave the way.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2004

    Attention Grabing

    The true-life writing of Frederick Douglas is exceptional. The memoirs of his youth into adulthood as a slave give the reader a descriptive outlook of his life experience. As you read the account of his life you can almost play it scene by scene. The story intrigues you. He would stop at nothing until he became his ¿own master¿. His life is a testament of his bravery, determination and thirst for knowledge.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2004

    LIT2480 online student

    I really enjoyed this book not only because of it's historical aspects, but for exposing the personal tragedy experienced by Frederick Douglass. It allowed me to have a deeper apprecation for his life and it's impact.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2004

    Must Read Book!

    This is definitely a must read book. I would recommend that every one, no matter what their race may be, should read this book. I found this book to be eye opening and heart wrenching. It really grabs your attention and make you want to read more. This book was written in such a way that I felt like I was being told the story personally instead of just reading it. I found myself rooting for Fredrick Douglass throughout the whole book. I think the part that touched me the most was the fact he never had to opportunity to know his mother. Me being a mother, I felt my my eyes water reading that. Frederick Douglass overcame so much in his life. He went from being a slave that did not know how to read or write to a free person that was (and still is) a much respected abolitionist. The story of his life is nothing short of amazing. I am really glad that I had to opportunity to read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2004

    G. Shillingford - MDCC Virtual College LIT-2480

    Module II ¿ Douglass Book Review Brilliant!! Heart breaking and unbelievably inspiring. Amazingly well written and easy to read. I was impressed with how quickly I was able to read Douglass¿s story. I also thought the narrative was a great proponent for literacy. It really portrays how reading can be the key to knowledge and independence. It was a testimony to the innate intelligence of the human spirit. I was greatly moved by the passage when Douglass says that he would rather be called egotistical by others than to deny the miracle that says that happened in his life. Through all sorts of adversity his spirit stayed alive and true to what he knew to be a real life although he had never experienced himself.

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