Douglass was not only the leading representative of nineteenth-century blacks, he stood for what was best in American ideals: the document he loved most was the Declaration of Independence. An advocate of morality, economic accumulation, self-help, and equality, he believed in racial pride, constant agitation against racial discrimination, vocational education for blacks, non-violent passive resistance, recognition of the separateness of the black "nation within a nation," and integration of blacks in American society. Antedating black nationalists, Booker T. Washington's emphasis on vocational education and economic self-help, W.E.B. DuBois's calls for protest, and Martin Luther King's non-violent direct action, Frederick Douglass is an enduring figure in American history.
Frederick Douglass's antebellum reputation as a writer rests firmly on the autobiography he published when he was twenty-seven years old. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is generally recognized as the greatest nineteenth-century American autobiography. In the Narrative, Douglass recounts his childhood and early adulthood. Growing up in the 1820s on the huge Eastern Shore estate of Edward Lloyd in Maryland's Talbot County, Douglass lived apart from his mother and was raised by his grandmother with numerous children. When Douglass was about eight years old, he was moved to Baltimore to work in the household of his owner's brother. This opportunity changed his life because there he educated himself, eventually learned a trade, met his future wife Anna Murray, and was exposed to a dynamic urban environment that planted a painful restlessness with his enslavement. Although he was returned to Talbot County, he soon found his way back to Baltimore where relentless plotting finally yielded a successful escape in 1838. Douglass settled with his new wife in New Bedford, Massachusetts; worked a variety of jobs; and became a leader of the local black community. A fortuitous introduction to the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison led Douglass to become a featured speaker in the northern abolitionist lecture circuit.
By 1845, Douglass was renowned as an orator, which enhanced the reception of his autobiography. An essential weapon in the abolitionist offensive against slavery, slave narratives' credibility had recently suffered because two widely circulated accounts were exposed as frauds. Douglass's autobiography restored integrity to slave narratives: he identified the individuals who enslaved and brutalized him in Maryland, and he told where he currently resided. Not only did Douglass illustrate how fervently fugitives wished to indict and overthrow slavery, but he also regained honor and force for these vital accounts. His Narrative played a central role in moving the North against slavery; moreover, it gave future generations one of America's greatest epics of an individual's undying dedication to freedom and dignity.
At first glance, Douglass's incomparable literary success is inexplicable. During the two decades he spent as a Maryland slave, for example, Douglass displayed few of the talents that would mark his later literary career. Indeed, one observer who knew Douglass during the years he spent in bondage recalled that he was "an unlearned, and rather ordinary negro." However ordinary Douglass appeared as a slave, he had become an extraordinary man by 1845, seven years after his escape from bondage. If not yet learned, Douglass was at least highly literate by 1845.1
In typical nineteenth-century fashion, Douglass referred to his autobiography in self-effacing terms. Like many authors, Douglass did not often reflect on or clearly elucidate the various literary influences bearing upon his writing. Nevertheless, it is obvious that when Douglass began writing his autobiography in the winter of 1844-45, he understood the conventions and literary canons that applied to the genre.2 Influences upon Douglass's autobiography included antebellum literary criticism, previously published black and white slave narratives, his knowledge of other autobiographical writings, and events that took place between 1838 and 1845.3
Writing for an increasingly literate society, American critics valued autobiographies over novels as instructive books for the education of youth. Because autobiographers sketched their lives from childhood to their attainment of eminence and stressed "the cultivation of intellectual and moral power," they could provide lessons, examples, and inspirations to the young.4 Of special concern to antebellum critics was the credibility of any autobiography. Detailing the factors that limited credibility (senility, egotism, and vanity), the critics developed a series of tests to determine where it existed. Over time critics became more confident of their ability to determine the veracity of autobiographies, by concentrating on the patterns of revelation and concealment in a work. 5 Many American critics identified Benjamin Franklin as the model autobiographer because of the clarity and economy of his writing.6 In the 1830s, while still enslaved, Douglass first encountered Franklin indirectly in Caleb Bingham's primer, The Columbian Orator.7
Once free, Douglass relied upon abolitionist newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets, and slave narratives as his critical texts. Between 1838 and 1844 Douglass avidly read such antislavery publications as the Liberator, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the Liberty Bell, the Emancipator, the Anti-Slavery Almanac, and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter which contained speeches, interviews, and autobiographies of dozens of fugitive slaves including Lunsford Lane, James Curry, Lewis Clarke, and the Amistad rebels. Douglass also came to know the "slave's biographer," Isaac T. Hopper, who published "Tales of Oppression,? a long-running popular column of slave narratives in the National Anti-Slavery Standard."8 Equally significant, the abolition newspapers and magazines published reviews of autobiographies, furnishing Douglass with further advice on the elements of the proper autobiography.
Douglass also read repeatedly Theodore Dwight Weld's American Slavery As It Is, a collection of personal narratives. Douglass quoted frequently from Weld's work in the speeches he gave between 1841 and 1845. Indeed, American Slavery As It Is long represented for Douglass the standard by which to measure all statements about the character of American slavery.9 Douglass relied so extensively on personal narratives in American Slavery As It Is that they undoubtedly formed the structure, focus, and style of his Narrative. Weld repeatedly stressed the importance of a truthful portrayal of slavery, urged witnesses to "'speak what they know, and testify what they have seen,'" and commanded them to demonstrate a "fidelity to truth."...10 Douglass also would adopt Weld?s practice of prefacing most of the accounts with published letters vouching for the author's integrity and veracity.
Although the other autobiographical works Douglass read were probably somewhat less influential than American Slavery As It Is, they were no less significant. The most salient features of the slave narratives he read in the abolition press was their brevity, directness, simplicity, and lack of specificity. Often editors prefaced the accounts with declarations that publication had been delayed until the fugitive had reached Canada. Editors of the accounts of fugitives who remained in the United States frequently tried to guarantee their anonymity by giving them fictional names, deleting specific references to their masters and places of enslavement, or citing initials for all personal and place names that might possibly serve as keys to the real identity of the narrator. While helping to insure the safety of the fugitive, such practices, the amanuenses realized, seriously undermined the credibility of the accounts. In many cases, however, the guarantee of anonymity was the sine quad non for obtaining accounts from frightened fugitives.11 What impressed critics were "unvarnished" stories of the slaves' lives filled with "unstudied pathos" and "touching" incidents that only an actual observer could describe. Credibility and plainness were everything.12
Thus when the scandal over the narratives of Archy Moore and James Williams broke in the late 1830s, the continuing viability of the slave autobiographies was threatened. Published anonymously in 1836, the Memoirs of Archy Moore produced disarray among the abolitionists when Southerners protested that it was fictional. Reviewers--uncertain about the work's reliability--wavered between describing it as the factual account of a slave and a fictional work. In 1837, however, a historian and abolitionist, Richard Hildreth, admitted that he had created the narrative and disguised it as genuine autobiography. Deeply embarrassed by this affair, the antislavery societies had to rescue this critical tool in their crusade from the refuse pile to which the slaveholders wanted permanently to consign it.13
There could not have been a worse time, then, for another crisis of credibility to arise as it did in 1838 with the Narrative of James Williams, published by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and edited by John Greenleaf Whittier. Abolitionists spent much of 1838 countering the attacks on Williams's story. The most systematic defense came from the pen of "Memento." Reminding Liberator readers of the general skepticism of Whittier, "Memento" noted that former slaveholder James Birney of Alabama confirmed Williams's characterization of slave life in that state, praised the account of valuable "documentary evidence," and concluded that it was "incontrovertibly true; and is additionally valuable, because it so powerfully corroborates other evidence and facts which have been published."
Despite the complaints and defense of people like "Memento," the Executive Committee of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society eventually had to consider the possibility that Williams had fabricated his story. The Committee checked many of the personal and place names mentioned in Williams' account with knowledgeable southerners who almost universally disputed his claims. After its investigation, the Committee published a full retraction in November 1838 in which it came "fully to the conclusion,--that the statements of the narrative...are wholly false" and withdrew the book from sale. The Williams debacle forced all abolitionist amanuenses to be more cautious, to state whether they were using real or fictitious personal and place names, and to search systematically for corroborating evidence and authenticating testimony for the oral accounts of fugitive slaves. Williams haunted Theodore Weld; he sought to exorcise fraudulent statements from the eyewitness accounts he published in American Slavery As It Is. The import of this crisis could not have been lost on Douglass.14
Many of Douglass's views of the purpose and structure of autobiographies were those traditionally expressed by black authors since the eighteenth century. Antebellum black authors were well aware of contemporary autobiographical canons and especially the didactic purposes served by such works. Like their white contemporaries, black autobiographers often reflected on the genre, and frequently explained their motives for writing in their preface and introductions...15
Antebellum black autobiographers consistently asserted that the chief reason for portraying their lives was the need to bear witness against slavery, to wake their fellow American to its evil, and to cheer those on who labored in the cause of human freedom. Truth, the antebellum black autobiographers contended, would expose the evil of slavery and contribute to its destruction. Interestingly, American whites formerly enslaved in Africa wrote autobiographies with the same didactic purposes and expectations in mind. While the experiences of white authors formerly enslaved or held captive were recorded in published reminiscences, the autobiographical writings of black slaves grew out of their own lectures. Once published, the autobiography led to more frequent trips to the lectern as the black's written and spoken voice moved in easy tandem.16
Usually, autobiographers present their views of the genre in the prefaces of their life stories. Unfortunately, during the antebellum period autobiographers often had friends and acquaintances write prefaces and Douglass followed this route in 1845. It is probably no accident that the publisher Douglass chose for his first autobiography was the American Anti-Slavery Society and that he found two people, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, "personally known" to its Executive Committee to write prefatory notes to his Narrative.
Only later in his speeches did Douglass publicly explain why he had written his autobiography. Essentially, Douglass contended, he wrote the autobiography to authenticate his antislavery speeches--and thus, his voice. Douglass delivered a typical exposition of this theme in his speech of 18 May 1846 in London in which he pointed out that after delivering antislavery lectures for four years:
my manner was such as to create a suspicion that I was not a runaway slave, but some educated free negro, whom the abolitionists had sent forth to attract attention to what was called there a faltering cause. They said, he appears to have no fear of white people. How can he ever have been in bondage? But one strong reason for this doubt was, the fact that I never made known to the people to whom I spoke where I came from .... But it became necessary to set myself right before the public in the United States, and to reveal the whole facts of my case. I did not feel it safe to do so till last spring, when I was solicited to it by a number of anti-slavery friends, who assured me that it would be safe to do so. I then published a narrative of my experience in slavery, in which I detailed the cruelties of it as I had myself felt them17Douglass knew well that perhaps the central problem he faced was to establish his credibility. To do so, he adopted several strategies. First, he placed a daguerreotype of himself on the book's frontispiece and signed his name below it. Before the reader had even begun the Narrative, they had seen a reproduction of the author and of his handwriting, evidence of his literacy. Next he preceded his text with letters from William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips who served as witnesses to his veracity. Finally, in the text of the Narrative Douglass used real names when referring to people and places and described how he came to know Garrison and Phillips.18
But Douglass did not rest even here in promoting his authenticity. Soon after the publication of the Narrative, he took a bold and unprecedented step: he mailed a copy of the Narrative to his master, Thomas Auld, and thereby challenged him publicly to refute it. Auld obviously had the greatest motive and was in the best position to disprove Douglass's Narrative if it were untrue. While Douglass relished this gesture, he also compounded his risk of realizing the fugitive's greatest fear--recapture. At a time when many of his fellow fugitives recounted the story of their lives only on condition that their anonymity be maintained by suppressing their true names, those of their masters, and the places of their enslavement, Douglass's revelations of such details in the face of the obvious threat their publication posed represented the greatest authentication of his text.19
The swift acclaim Douglass's work achieved attested to the success of these verifying methods. Of all of the other twenty-seven black autobiographies published before 1846, only six went through four or more editions during the nineteenth century and only three of these were translated into foreign languages. The most successful of them were the narratives of Charles Ball (six English language editions), James A. Gronnisaw (six English language and one Swedish edition), Moses Roper (seven English language and one Celtic edition) and Olaudah Equiano (twelve English language, one Dutch, and one German edition).
The Narrative far outstripped any of its predecessors. Between its appearance in May and September 1845, more than 4,500 copies of the Narrative had been sold. Three years later it had been translated into French, German, and Dutch. Between 1845 and 1847, two Irish and four English editions were published. According to Douglass, the Narrative had "passed through nine editions in England" by January 1848. Nine American editions had been published by 1850. In six years a total of twenty-one editions of the book had been published in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. By 1853, at least 30,000 copies of the book had been sold. The price of the American editions varied between 25 and 35 cents.20
The Narrative served several extra-literary purposes. Published just as Douglass was leaving the United States for an extended tour of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the Narrative helped to promote his lectures. Sales of the book before and after his appearance in a town helped him to meet his expenses. To the extent that readers in the United Kingdom believed the Narrative, they were that much more prepared to accept Douglass's lectures castigating America and American slavery. Douglass added further drama to his highly publicized "flight" to Great Britain to avoid the certain recapture assured by the publication of his Narrative by constantly alluding to this threat in his speeches.21
At the beginning of his tour of the United Kingdom, references to the Narrative became stock rhetorical devices in Douglass's speeches. Douglass frequently emphasized the threat of recapture when he began a speech. Typical was his assertion in a speech in Cork, Ireland, in October 1845 that while publication of the Narrative removed doubts that he had been a slave, it produced some excitement in the South, endangering his safety: "The excitement at last increased so much that it was thought better for me to get out of the way lest my master might use some stratagems to get me back into his clutches. I am here then in order to avoid the scent of the blood hounds of America, and of spreading light on the subject of her slave system."22
The Narrative was the most widely reviewed of all antebellum black autobiographies. Dozens of newspapers and magazines published in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe praised the book, and reviews exceeding 3,000 words were not unusual. Varying from long summaries containing numerous extracts to thoughtful essays on the nature of black autobiographies, the reviews generally accepted Douglass's self-portrait as true, interesting, and instructive.23
Blazoned, scrutinized, celebrated, excoriated, by the early 1850s the American public had no doubt that Frederick Douglass was a real person who had earlier passed through the mill of slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Subjected to the tough test of credibility leveled against nineteenth century autobiographers, he had almost singlehandedly restored vigor to the slave narratives as key weapons in the antislavery crusade. But Douglass also established that his tremendous gift as a writer was not limited to political instruments. Douglass proved himself a master of one of the most American of literary genres--the salvational autobiography.
Embracing the tradition of Puritan conversion narratives, Indian captivity narratives, and especially the secularized yet deeply moral autobiographies best represented by Benjamin Franklin, Douglass so crafted his work that his positive relationship with them all was unmistakable as he too encountered and renounced the snares of the world and stayed to an ever clearer pursuit of moral responsibility, wisdom, and freedom. However black, enslaved, and seemingly other, his affecting and lucid prose argued for his oneness and that of his racial brethren with Franklin and theirs. By jeopardizing his very security as a fugitive in order to rebuild the credibility of the American slave narrative, none so dramatically as Douglass integrated both the horror and the great quest of the African American experience into this deep stream of American autobiography. He advanced and extended that tradition and is rightfully designated one of its greatest practitioners.
Douglass's public life had just begun when he published his first autobiography. Throughout the balance of the antebellum years, Douglass prevailed as one of the most powerful antislavery voices in the North, strengthened by his popular 1850s newspaper The North Star and later Frederick Douglass' Paper and by his second autobiography, My Bondage, My Freedom (1855). During the Civil War, he fought relentlessly for the use of black troops and, after Lincoln agreed, recruited hundreds of young black men in the North. After the Civil War, Douglass became an ardent promoter of the Republicans while continuing to fight for women's rights, for full civil equality of African Americans, and against the racial retrenchments occurring after Reconstruction. Frederick Douglass died 20 February 1895.
1. John W. Blassingame et al., eds.,
Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews
(New Haven, Conn., 1979-), 1:40.
2. The paucity of studies of nineteenth-century American criticism of autobiographies forces the interested student systematically to examine the magazines of the period and the collected essays on the literary critics active between 1800 and 1860. A brief overview of nineteenth-century English criticism of autobiographies can be found in Keith Rinehart, "The Victorian Approach to Autobiography," Modern Philology, 51:177-86 (February 1954); and George P. Landow, ed., Approaches to Victorian Autobiography (Athens, Ohio, 1979), 3-26, 39-63, 333-54. The most useful bibliography of works revealing the nature of autobiographies appears in James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton, N.J., 1980).
3. C. Marius Barbeau, "Indian Captivities," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94:522-48 (December 1950); Richard Van Der Beets, "A Surfeit of Style: The Indian Captivity Narrative as Penny Dreadful," Research Studies, 39:297-306 (December 1971); Roy Harvey Pearce, "The Significance of the Captivity Narrative," American Literature, 19:1-20 (March 1947); Joseph Bruchac, "Black Autobiography in Africa and America," Black Academy Review, 2:61-70 (Spring-Summer, 1971); Mutulu K. Blasing, The Art of Life: Studies in American Autobiographical Literature (Austin, Tex., 1977); James Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (Hartford, Conn., 1836), iii-xiv; Eliza Bradley, An Authentic Narrative of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Mrs. Eliza Bradley (Boston, 1821); John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, rev. ed. (New York, 1979), 376-77.
4. New England Magazine, 5:32-33 (July 1833), 9:140-41 (August 1835); New York Review, 7:535-37 (July 1840); North American Review, 10:1-14 (January 1820).
5. New York Review, 3:403 (October 1838). See also: North American Review, 9:58-59 (June 1819); New York Review, 8:1-50 (January 1841); Howard Helsinger, "Credence and Credibility: The Concern for Honesty in Victorian Autobiography," in Landow, ed., Approaches to Victorian Autobiography, 39-63.
6. North American Review, 7:321 (September 1818).
7. Caleb Bingham, ed., The Columbian Orator (1797; Boston, 1831), 65-68.
8. For examples of these autobiographical accounts, see: John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), 128-64, 198-245, 690-95; Lydia Maria Child, "Charity Bowery," Liberty Bell (Boston, 1839), 26-43; Isaac T. Hopper, "Story of a Fugitive," Liberty Bell (Boston, 1843), 163-69; "Story of Anthony Gayle," in The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1838 (Boston, 1838); 44; "The Conscientious Slave," The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1843 (New York, 1843), 42-44; Lydia Maria Child, Isaac T. Hopper: A True Life (Boston, 1853).
9. Frederick Douglass Papers, 29 April 1853; Blassingame, Douglass Papers, 1:42, 52, 75.
10. [Theodore Dwight Weld], American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (New York, 1839), 9-10, 122; Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 1; 41, 51-52, 254, 279-81, 322, 485.
11. Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 145-50, 151-64, 213-16; Hopper, "Story of a Fugitive," 163-69.
12. Boston Liberator, 9, 30 March 1838 (hereinafter cited as Lib.).
13. Richard Hildrith, ed., Archy Moore, the White Slave; Or Memoirs of a Fugitive (1856; New York, 1969); Marion Wilson Starling, The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History (Boston, 1981), 227-33.
14. Lib., 2 November 1838; African Repository, 15:161-63 (June 1839). See also: Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy; Late a Slave in the United States of America, ed. George Thompson (London, 1843), ii.
15. For a list of black autobiographies published between 1837 and 1845, see: George P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport, Conn., 1972), 179-89; Starling, Slave Narrative, 39-50. See also [Olaudah Equiano], The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789; Dublin, 1791), 1-2; Sidione Smith, Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography (Westport, Conn., 1974), 3-27; Charles H. Nichols, Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves' Account of Their Bondage and Freedom (Leiden, Netherlands, 1963); Gilbert Osofsky, ed., Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northrup (New York, 1969), 9-44; Frances Smith Foster, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (Westport, Conn., 1979); Arna Bontemps, ed., Great Slave Narratives (Boston, 1969), vii-xix; John F. Bayliss, ed., Black Slave Narratives (London, 1970), 7-21; Stephen Butterfield, Black Autobiography in America (Amherst, Mass., 1974), 11-89; Charles H. Nichols, ed., Black Men in Chains: Narratives by Escaped Slaves (New York, 1972), 9-24.
16. Stephen Clissold, The Barbary Slaves (London, 1977); John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, rev. ed. (New York, 1979),367-82; Riley, Authentic Narrative, x-xxii; Blassingame, Slave Testimony, xxxiv-xxxvii, 145-64.
17. Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 1:37-38, 82, 88-89, 132-33.
18. Robert Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana, Ill., 1979), 4-5, 17-26.
19. On kidnappings and renditions of fugitive slaves, see: New York NASS, 29 October 1840, 25 November 1841, 3 February, 15 August, 29 September, 13 October, 17, 24 November, 8, 15 December 1842, 2 February 1843, 9 May, 25 July, 26 September, 7 November 1844, 22 May 1845.
20. NS, 7 January, 21 April, 29 September 1848; NASS, 29 April 1847; Lib., 20 June 6, 12, 19 September, 24, 31 October 1845; 2 January 1846; 12 November 1847; 24 May 1850. The foreign language editions were: Levensverhaal van Frederik Douglass, een' gewezen' slaaf (door hem zelven geschreven). Uit het Engelsch (Rotterdam. H.A. Kramers, 1846); Vie de Frederic Douglass; escalve americain, ecrite par lui-meme, traduite de l'anglais par S.K. Parkes (Paris: Pagnerre, 1848).
21. Lib., 25 July 1845, 10 July 1846; Cork Examiner, 22 October 1845; NASS, 4 December 1845; British Friend, 3:191 (December 1845); Bristol Mercury, 6 January 1846; ASB, 9 January 1846; Littell's Living Age, 9:50 (4 April 1846); Newcastle Guardian, 11 July 1846.
22. Blassingame, Douglass Papers, ser. 1, 1: 37-45, 76, 81-90, 109, 128, 132-33, 291, 399.
23. For an overview of critical reception of books by nineteenth-century black authors, see: Julian D. Mason, "The Critical Reception of American Negro Authors in American Magazines, 1800-1885" (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1962).
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