Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the author’s own account of that period of his life between birth in slavery and escape from slavery. Its’ 1845 publication catapulted a recently free dock laborer, from anonymity to national importance. “The Narrative’s initial edition of 5000 copies was sold in four months. Within a year four more editions of 2000 copies each were brought out.” (Douglass, p. xiii). Douglass’s books, his tireless speaking engagements in the US and overseas, and his newspaper (The North Star) which he founded and edited, were among the most eloquent instruments of abolitionism.
The success of the Narrative lay in the author’s prose. They are dignified and highly readable. There is little self-criticism in this autobiography. We readers of the 21st Century have become accustomed to accounts in which the author honestly reveals personal flaws. But this was not a fashion of the more reserved Nineteenth Century. Besides, this book, like many other slave chronicles, was meant to serve as abolitionist propaganda, by elucidating the horrors of slavery. Showing a noble individual, contending with brutally repressive circumstances, made more sense for the purpose of this writing. Several books written (or ghost written) by slaves had been published prior to Douglass’s effort. But none met with the success enjoyed by this New Bedford dock worker. His style is at its’ best when it is lean; at its’ most awkward when he hangs a literary reference on his lines. Fortunately, there are few such references. He reveals the horrible abuses of slavery and its’ attempts to the crush human spirit, with a largely unembellished, straightforward method.
During his lifetime, Douglas withstood numerous charges that a recent slave could not have produced such a maturely composed book. Masters routinely attempted to keep slaves from learning any reading, let alone writing. They fully understood that education would lead to a desire for freedom; while ignorance made one more malleable. The Narrative presents a consistent theme that will interest readers of non-fiction, who seek learning of their own accord: it depicts both the slave owner’s attempts to prevent and punish learning, and Douglass’s unquenchable desire to learn. The author employed numerous clandestine, persistent and clever tactics, to educate himself. Readers today, who find themselves with limited time and energy for personal edification, will gain inspiration in these pages, from one who faced greater obstacles.
But the most valuable element in reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is that one is holding in one’s hands a piece of history. The book is a precious artifact of our country’s past, through which one of our ancestors speaks to us directly about freedom and dignity, while revealing a period of our history. The story itself contains the chronicle of an individual who lived though a terrifying, unjust time, and survived to escape with his self respect intact. So many hands have touched this book, and so many minds have shared in its discovery, that it is one of the chief documents which expresses our national character and our aspirations. Given that we continue to strive as a society to overcome racism, these aspirations are both of our past and of our present.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.