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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|
The compelling autobiography of an extraordinary man born into slavery, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is also a powerful inquiry into the question of what it means to be human. From the opening sentences of the narrative, Douglass delineates the context from which this question emerges—the fact that slave owners typically thought of slaves as animals. Douglass does not know how old he is, and he quickly asserts that this is not unusual, since most slaves "know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs" (p. 47). It is instructive that this initial comparison of slaves to animals does not serve to express something about the minds of the slave owners; instead, it expresses something about the minds of the slaves that is the consequence of being born into an environment constructed and carefully maintained by their owners. In an environment that does not permit the idea that slaves are human, the only perspective available to them is that of their owners. Their own perspective therefore becomes an additional barrier to thinking of themselves as human.
Learning to read and write is essential to the process whereby Douglass comes to see himself as human. As he describes it, the acquisition of these skills is inseparable from the dawning of self-consciousness. Reading gives Douglass access to a new world that opens before him, but the strongest effect of his literacy is the light it casts on the world he already knows. His anguish is so great that he "would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing" (p. 84). It allows him to see his "wretched condition, without the remedy" (p. 84). Self-consciousness, the trait that most distinguishes humans from animals, produces such despair in Douglass that he confesses he often wished himself a beast.
Douglass portrays the breadth of slavery's ability to dehumanize through his insights into the mentality of slave owners. Douglass suggests that if slaves are made rather than born, the same is sometimes true of slave owners. The mistress who began teaching him to read and write "at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting [him] up in mental darkness" (p. 81). Under the influence of her husband and, more generally, the institution of slavery, "the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness" (p. 82). The mistress not only stops teaching Douglass to read and write, but she is even more vigilant than her husband in preventing him from learning. The transformation of his mistress raises the question of how much of the behavior of slave owners toward their slaves was learned and how much was internally motivated. Douglass would have us believe that the mistress was the victim of her circumstances, yet the brutality other slave owners seemed to come by so easily makes it difficult to determine whether the behavior was learned or inherent.
Edward Covey undoubtedly counts among the slave owners who play the role as if born for it; his harsh treatment breaks Douglass "in body, soul, and spirit" (p. 105). Following his eloquent lament for the freedom he cannot have, represented by the ships sailing on Chesapeake Bay, Douglass writes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 107). The first part of this statement could refer to the methods employed by Covey, if not to all the owners at whose hands Douglass suffered. The second part refers to the story that follows, in which Douglass resists the whipping Covey intends to give him for disobeying. They fight for two hours, with Covey "getting entirely the worst end of the bargain" (p. 113). Douglass is never whipped again, and he describes this incident as "the turning-point in [his] career as a slave" and says that it "revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood" (p. 113). Douglass emphasizes the importance of literacy in developing his sense of himself as human. Is he suggesting, though, that his refusal to submit to Covey's punishment was ultimately more important than his ability to read and write in shaping his sense of self?
In a letter that prefaces the narrative, Wendell Phillips, social activist and friend of Douglass's, recalls "the old fable of 'The Man and the Lion,' where the lion complained that he should not be so misrepresented 'when the lions wrote history'" (p. 43). As Phillips observes, Douglass's narrative is history written from the perspective of those who previously had no voice. The very existence of the narrative makes it a testament to its author's humanity and, therefore, a document of revisionist history. However, what gives Douglass's narrative its universal relevance is his acute awareness of the complexities of human psychology. He observes that slaves usually spoke of themselves as content and of their masters as kind, concluding that slaves "suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family" (p. 62). Douglass is ever mindful that our humanity encompasses our failings no less than our capacity for nobility.
ABOUT FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in rural Maryland in 1818. Sent to work in Baltimore, he was taught to read by the mistress of the house and regarded this achievement as a turning point in his life. Another such point was his violent resistance to a beating by the man to whom he had been bound as a field slave at age seventeen. Three years later, he escaped to the North, married, and worked menial jobs until his debut as an orator at an antislavery convention in 1841.
To expand his audience and to document the authenticity of his story, Douglass published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845. The book was critically acclaimed and sold well both in the United States and in Europe. Douglass left for England later the same year, where he spent two years writing and lecturing. He returned to the United States after abolitionist friends purchased his legal emancipation.
From 1847 to 1863, Douglass published his own weekly paper, The North Star, leading to a break with his mentor William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass also produced a number of other periodicals, as well as two extensions of his narrative—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1848, he played a prominent role at the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, and he was a lifelong supporter of the women's suffrage movement. During the Civil War he was an adviser to President Lincoln and recruited blacks, including his own sons, for the Union army. He was appointed to several government positions, including recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia and United States minister and consul general to Haiti. Douglass died in 1895.
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Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
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Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream" (1963)
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Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
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Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
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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!!
9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2013
Posted August 14, 2012
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 January 28, 2014
Posted November 1, 2013
I found this account of Fredrick Douglas' life solid and thoroughly written. It should be required reading in all schools and a research guide for anyone seeking insight into, not only Mr. Douglas' life, but also what life was like for African American's at this time in American history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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Posted May 18, 2005
From the beginning of the book to the end you can somewhat feel the suffering and the additional weight put on the slaves. Federick Douglass specifies what he goes threough and what he does about it in this book. He basically tells it all. This is one of the greatest books i'vc ever read by far.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 31, 2012
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