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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's subtitle—Written by Himself —was 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's 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's 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's 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—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and 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.
|INTRODUCTION: "A Psalm of Freedom"|
|Pt. 1||The Document||25|
|Editor's Note on the Text||27|
|Preface by William Lloyd Garrison, May 1,1845||29|
|Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq., April 22,1845||36|
|Narrative Of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself||39|
|Notes on the Text||109|
|Pt. 2||Selected Reviews, Documents, and Speeches||117|
|Caleb Bingham, "Dialogue Between a Master and a Slave," in The Columbian Orator (1797)||119|
|Margaret Fuller, Review of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, New York Tribune, June 10, 1845||121|
|Ephraim Peabody, "Narratives of Fugitive Slaves," excerpt, Christian Examiner, July 1849||124|
|Nathaniel P. Rogers, "Southern Slavery and Northern Religion," two addresses delivered in Concord, New Hampshire, February 11, 1844, as reported in (Concord, N.H.) Herald Freedom, February 16,1844||128|
|Frederick Douglass, "My Slave Experience in Maryland," an address delivered in New York City, May 6, 1845, as recorded in National Antislavery Standard, May 22,1845||130|
|Frederick Douglass, Letter to Thomas Auld, September 3, 1848, published in The North Star, September 8,1848; and The Liberator, September 22, 1848||134|
|Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852||141|
|App. A Douglass chronology (1818-1895)||147|
|App. Questions for Considerarion||153|
|App. Selected Bibliography||155|
I am a high school Social Studies teacher. Each year when I teach about the Reform Period (1820-1860), I require my students to read the "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." The abolitionist movement is the most visible element of the Reform Period, and Douglass is a giant among men in the movement.
If you want to learn about what life was really like for African Americans trapped in the institution of slavery then this is your book. When my classes read this book, we read one chapter a day for eleven consecutive days. The book is not all that lengthy, and when presented in this fashion it allows them the opportunity to slowly filter all of what Douglass is relating about his topic.
Douglass does an excellent job of getting his readers to understand how "ignorance" is used as a tool of slavery. He also vividly conveys how male and female slaves alike are victimized by their masters. Lastly, and most importantly I believe, he conveys how slavery creates a perversion of Christianity.
This book is a classic and more Americans should find time to read it.
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Posted September 23, 2004
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!
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Posted July 9, 2012
I had to read yhis book for summer reading and i loved it. I reccomend to anyone wondering how it was to be faced with impossible situations and overcome them with just the right mind set. Just great!!
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Posted September 28, 2008
this was the most intriguing book about Fredric Douglas.It is a great read and I hope that other young people become involved with learning more about a man like Fredric Douglas. -Caiti
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Posted May 20, 2005
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.
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The most authentic look at past events is through the eyes of someone who lived it. Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland and illegally taught himself to read and write. He escaped and 20 years before the Civil War he wrote of his personal experiences in an attempt to open people's eyes and hearts to the plight of his brethern who were, literally, in chains.
If you want to understand where we are now by seeing where we've come from, this clear, consise account of slavery is highly recommended.
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Posted October 14, 2011
Frederick Douglass was elegant and eloquent. When you give serious consideration to the incredible circumstances he overcame to achieve success in the 1800s, it is truly impressive and inspiring. He wrote with honesty and honor. It is a shame that most Americans know nothing of this man or his works.
Whether you are history buff or not, everyone should read this book as there are lessons to be learned by us all.
Posted May 11, 2011