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« A Douglass Lexicon | Main | Roth and His Narrators »
Saturday
Oct082011

Telling the Self

Frederick Douglass is one of the pillars of American history. An escaped slave, he was a tireless advocate of radical abolition. He welcomed the Civil War and believed that the North could have no truck with the South. He was known for his reasoned and impassioned logic, based on humanistic principles from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (as opposed to the more fiery, proto-evangelical rhetoric of the Boston abolitionists). After the Civil War, he morphed into a tireless advocate for the rights of immigrants and for women's suffrage. He was the first African American ever nominated to a U. S. presidential ticket (he was the VP nomimee under Victoria Woodhull for the Equal Rights Party in 1872). Douglass was a well-known if not always popular figure, the publisher of many newspapers, including The North Star, one of the most prominent anti-slavery organs in the United States. Along with Martin R. Delany, he was also one of the few African-Americans to influence Lincoln's evolving thought on race relations leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Over the course of this eventful and celebrated life, Douglass wrote three autobiographies:

  • The first, NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, AN AMERICAN SLAVE, was written in 1845, when Douglass was a little under 30 and just a few years after he had escaped from the South. It's terse and vivid, even pugilistic, the details often sacrificed to the quick narrative.
  • The second, the one we're reading, MY BONDAGE AND MY FREEDOM (1855), is more measured, as befits a man almost 40. It takes time for philosophical and psychological insights, often given with biting understatement or sarcasm. For example: "Thus early I learned that the point from which a thing is viewed is of some importance" (chapter 2, end of the fourth paragraph).
  • The final book, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, was written when Douglass was nearing the end of his life, in 1880 and 1881, then revised again in 1893, long after the Civil War had ended, even after Reconstruction in the South, and already into the horror of the Jim Crow decades.

If you'll look at the three titles to Douglass' books, you'll note that we're reading the only one specifically in the first person. The first and third attempts to tell his life story are titled in the third person. That said, the two other narratives are not told in the third person; they are indeed first-person autobiographies. But certainly the titles belie a problem: seeing oneself at one remove.

To that end, the first and third autobiographies have axes to grind. In the first, Douglass is trying to gain a footing among the Boston abolitionists, to find a place in their community--and to find a place among the growing number of ex-slaves in the North who wrote best-seller pot-boilers about the horrors of the South. The final book is concerned with establishing Douglass' legacy, particularly after he was sent on a celebrated (and failed) diplomatic mission to Haiti and after his return to Maryland in 1877 and the death-bed reconciliation with his former master.

MY BONDAGE AND MY FREEDOM is the only explicitly first-person title--and perhaps the most personal of the three books. It is also the most explicitly literary of the three. This is not merely a fragment of American history, a personal story of a troubled time, but a piece of literature, constructed in ways that sometimes outwit its writer, as narrative almost always does. It's got tinges of bitterness and regret on almost every page. And despite its title and markers in the table of contents, does not divide into two halves. Perhaps it should have been called "My Freedom, Then My Bondage, Then My Freedom, Then My Bondage, Then My Freedom, And So Forth."

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