- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Author(s) Frederick Douglass Country United States Language English Subject(s) Civil Rights Genre(s) Autobiography Publisher Dover Publications, Inc. Publication date 1845
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a memoir and treatise on abolition written by famous orator and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass. It is generally held to be the most famous of a number of narratives written by former slaves during the same period. In factual detail, the text describes the events of his life and is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature to fuel the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century in the United States.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass encompasses eleven chapters that recount Douglass' life as a slave and his ambition to become a free man.
The story begins by telling the reader that Douglass does not know the date of his birth and that he is relatively saddened by this. He continues by explaining that his mother died when he was 7 years old. This does not affect Douglass very much because he was separated from his mother when he was very young. His father was believed to be a white man, and most people actually had the notion that Douglass was the son of his owner. At a very early age, Douglass witnesses his first brutal act of slavery when he sees Aunt Hester being whipped. The text continues and details the structure of farms, what role slaves play, and how they operate when interacting with their masters. A very important section of the Narrative is found at this point, where Douglass describes the singing of the slaves. After this, Douglass details the cruel interaction that occurs between slaves and slave holders, as well as how slaves are supposed to behave in the presence of their masters, and that even when Douglass says that fear is what kept many slaves where they were, when they tell the truth they are penalr owners. Douglass continues by describing several events in which there has been extreme brutality against his fellow slaves.
At this point in the Narrative, Douglass is moved to Baltimore, Maryland. This is rather important for him because he believes that if he had not been moved, he would have remained a slave his entire life. He even starts to have hope for a better life in the future. At this point, he discusses his new mistress, Mrs. Auld, who begins as a very kind woman but eventually turns cruel. Douglass learns the alphabet and how to spell small words from this woman, but her husband, Mr. Auld, disapproves, and states that if slaves could read the Bible, they will not be fit to be a slave. Upon hearing why Mr. Auld disapproves of slaves being taught how to read, Douglass realizes the importance of reading and the possibilities that this skill could help him. He takes it upon himself to learn how to read and learn all he can, but at times, this newfound skill torments him. Douglass then gains an understanding of the word abolition and develops the idea to run away to the North. He also learns how to write and how to read well.
At the age of ten or eleven, Douglass' master dies and his property is left to be divided between his son and daughter. The slaves are valued alongside with the livestock, causing Douglass to develop a new hatred to slavery. He feels lucky when he was sent back to Baltimore to live with the family of Master Hugh. He is then moved through a few before he is sent to St. Michael's. He regrets not having attempted to run away, but on his voyage he makes a mental note that he traveled in the North-Easterly direction and considers this information to be of extreme importance. For some time, he lives with Master Auld who is particularly cruel, even after attending a Methodist camp. He is pleased when he eventually is lent to Mr. Covey for a year, simply because he would be fed.
While under the control of Mr. Covey, Douglass is a field hand and has an especially hard time at the tasks required of him. He is harshly whipped almost on a weekly basis, apparently due to his awkwardness. He is worked and beaten to exhaustion, which finally causes him to collapse one day while working in the fields. Because of this, he is brutally beaten once more by Covey, and eventually complains to Thomas Auld, who ultimately sends him back to Covey. One day, Covey attempts to tie up Douglass, but he fights back. After a long, two hour physical battle, Douglass ultimately conquers. After this fight, he is never beaten again. He is sent to live on another plantation where he befriends other slaves and teaches them how to read. He and the others make a plan to escape, but before doing so, they are caught and Douglass is put in jail. After he is released, he is sent to Baltimore once more, but this time to learn a trade. He becomes an apprentice in a shipyard where he is abused by several white people. Master Hugh is kind regarding this situation and refuses to let Douglass return to the shipyard. At this point, Douglass is employed to be a caulker and receives wages, but is forced to give every cent to Master Auld. Douglass eventually finds his own job and plans the date in which he will escape to the North. He succeeds, but Douglass does not give details of how he did so, in order to protect those who helped him and to ensure the possibility of other slaves' escape. At this point, Douglass unites with his fiancé and begins working as his own master. He ultimately attends an antislavery convention and supports the cause from that time forth.kir
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845, and within four months of this publication, five thousand copies were sold. By 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold. After publication, he sailed to England and Ireland for two years in fear of being recaptured by his owner in the United States. While in Britain and Ireland, he gained supporters who paid $710.96 to purchase his emancipation from his legal owner. One of the more significant reasons Douglass published his Narrative was to offset the demeaning manner in which white people viewed him. When he spoke in public, his white abolitionists established limits to what he could say on the platform. More specifically, they did not want him to analyze the current slavery issues or to shape the future for black people. However, once Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published, he was given the liberty to begin more ambitious work on the issue rather than giving the same speeches repetitively. Because of the work in his Narrative, Douglass gained significant credibility from those who previously did not believe the story of his past. While in Ireland the Dublin edition of the book was published by the abolitionist printer Richard D. Webb to great acclaim and Douglass would write extensively in later editions very positively about his experience in Ireland. His newfound liberty on the platform eventually led him to start a black newspaper against the advice of his "fellow" abolitionists. The publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass opened several doors, not only for Douglass' ambitious work, but also for the anti-slavery movement of that time.
Reactions to the text
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass has received many positive reviews, however, there was a group of people who opposed Douglass’ work. One of his biggest critics, A. C. C. Thompson, was a neighbor of Thomas Auld, who was the master of Douglass for some time. As seen in “Letter from a Slave Holder” by A. C. C. Thompson, found in the Norton Critical Edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, he claimed that the slave he knew was "an unlearned, and rather an ordinary negro." Thompson also was confident that Douglass “was not capable of writing the Narrative." He also refuted the Narrative when Douglass described the various cruel white slave holders that he either knew or knew of. While some may believe that Thompson has a valid argument, Douglass' use of real dates, names, and places cannot be ignored. Another interesting aspect to this topic is that prior to the publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the public could not fathom how it was possible for a former slave to appear to be so educated. Upon listening to his oratory, many were skeptical of the stories he told. After Douglass’ publication, however, the public was very swayed. Many viewed his text as an affirmation of what he spoke of publicly. Also found in The Norton Critical Edition, Margaret Fuller, a very prominent book review critic of that era, had a very positive opinion of Douglass' work. She claimed, "we have never read [a narrative] more simple, true, coherent, and warm with genuine feeling." She also described the preface in which two white men wrote on behalf of Douglass, establishing his credibility in the eyes of the public. She also suggested that "every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage - what a man may be subjected to the insults of spendthrift dandies, or the blows of mercenary brutes, in whom there is no whiteness except of the skin, no humanity in the outward form . . ." Clearly, in the minds of many, Douglass' work in this Narrative was an incredibly influential piece of literature in the anti-slavery movement.
- ^ As reported in "The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass" in Phylon by James Matlack, March 1979.
- ^ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself in "A Norton Critical Edition"
- ^ Judith Mattson Bean, Joel Myerson (2000). Margaret Fuller, critic: writings from the New-York Tribune, 1844-1846, Volume 1. http://books.google.com/books?id=PBrIyIN9ICQC&pg=PA131&lpg=PA131&dq=Margaret+fuller+%22Narrative+of+the+Life+of+Frederick+Douglass%22#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved January 28, 2011.
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML).
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions illustrated)
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass audio book at FreeAudio.org.
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