Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Contributing Editor: James A. Miller
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Readers tend to read Douglass's Narrative
casually. Although they readily grasp Douglass's critiques of slavery in
broad and general terms, they tend to be less attentive to how
narrative is structured, to Douglass's choices of language and incident,
and to the ideological/aesthetic underpinnings of these choices.
I find it useful to locate Douglass historically within the context
of his relationship to the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement.
This requires students to pay more attention to the prefatory material
by Wendell Phillips
and William Lloyd Garrison
than they normally do. I also try to focus their attention on the rhetoric
and narrative point of view that Douglass establishes in the first chapter
of his Narrative.
Questions students often ask include the following:
How does Frederick Douglass escape?
How does he learn to write so well?
Is Douglass "typical" or "exceptional"?
Why does Anna Murray appear so suddenly at the end of the narrative?
Where is she earlier?
What happens to Douglass after the narrative ends?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Paying careful attention to the unfolding of Douglass's consciousness
within the context of slavery draws attention to the intersection of personal
and historical issues in the Narrative
. The movement from slavery
to "freedom" is obviously important, as is the particular means
by which Douglass achieves his freedom--the role literacy plays in his
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Douglass's command of the formal principles of oratory and rhetoric
should be emphasized, as well as his use of the conventions of both sentimental
literature and the rhetoric and symbolism of evangelical Christianity.
In short, it is important to note how Douglass appropriated the dominant
literary styles of mid-nineteenth-century American life to articulate his
claims on behalf of African-American humanity.
Through a careful examination of Douglass's rhetorical appeals, we try
to imagine and re-create Douglass's mid-nineteenth-century audience. We
try to contrast that audience to the various audiences, black and white,
that constitute the reading public in the late twentieth century.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
in the Life of a Slave Girl
--for a contrasting view of slavery through
a woman's eyes and experiences. Thoreau's
--for a view from one of Douglass's contemporaries. Franklin's
--for another prototype of American autobiography.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What is the function of the prefatory material? Why does Douglass
add an appendix?
2. What is the relationship of literacy to Douglass's quest for freedom?
3. What idea of God animates Douglass?
4. How does Douglass attempt to engage the sympathies of his audience?
Gibson, Donald B. "Christianity and Individualism: (Re-)Creation
in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self." African American
26 (Winter 1992): 591-603.
Kibbey, Ann. "Language in Slavery: Frederick Douglass' Narrative."
Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies
8 (1985): 163-82.
O'Meally, Robert G. "Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative: The Text
Was Meant To Be Preached." In Afro-American Literature: the Reconstruction
, edited by Robert B. Stepto and Dexter Fisher. New York:
Modern Language Association, 1978.
Sekora, John. "Comprehending Slavery: Language and Personal History
in Douglass' Narrative of 1845." College Language Association Journal
29 (1985): 157-70.
Smith, Stephanie A. "Heart Attack: Frederick Douglass's Strategic
34 (Spring 1992): 193-216.
Stepto, Robert B. "Narration, Authentication and Authorial Control
in Frederick Douglass' Narrative
of 1845." In Afro-American
Literature: the Reconstruction of Instruction
, edited by Robert B.
Stepto and Dexter Fisher. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978.
Stone, Albert C. "Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass' Narrative
College Language Association Journal
17 (1973): 192-213.
Sundquist, Eric J. "Slavery, Revolution and the American Renaissance."
In The American Renaissance Reconsidered
, edited by W. B. Michaels
and Donald E. Pease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.