The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published In 1845, and was immediately successful in the U.S. and abroad. At the time, it was seen as both a powerful autobiography, an effective political polemic condemning slaver, and great art (Sisco 195). The Narrative has become the most famous slave narrative, a genre of literature that was extremely popular throughout the 1850’s and 60’s, and has “received tremendous scholarly and pedagogical attention in recent decades” (Blight). Douglass would go on to become the preeminent abolitionist in the country, the most famous black American of his era and have a great influence on the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. His book was more than a description and condemnation of slavery, it raised both political and philosophical questions about freedom, slavery and the American political system. (McFeely 14). The Narrative experienced a literary evolution, from spectacular success to a period where it was historically neglected and out of print. However, it reemerged as a powerful symbol of freedom and equality and today is considered an important historical document and classic piece of literature.
Ex-slave autobiographies – called slave narratives - are the foundation of African American literature. According to Waldo Martin, in the The Mind of Frederick Douglass, the publication and success of the Narrative sparked a wave of ex-slave memoirs. The roughly sixty-five to seventy slave narratives published in America or England between 1760 and 1860 were windows into the nature of slavery itself (Martin 14). American slaves wrote their personal stories to “demonstrate their own humanity in a sea of racial prejudice” (Blight). In slave narratives, the former slaves describe their trials as slaves, their flight to freedom and their education on life, politics and society. Ultimately, the narratives would outline their philosophy and emphasize their dedication to spreading the word, changing the political system and helping other slaves flee slavery. Slaves also wrote narratives to record the collective experience of blacks and their resistance to the dehumanization of slavery. It was informal historical documentation at a time when few were recording what was really going on in the South or realistically examining the institutional of slavery. Douglass's Narrative lays out the details of his own life, but also serves as an example of what happened to all slaves. He wrote it “to not only emancipate himself but an entire race whom were illiterate and incapable of relating their experiences themselves” (Kelly 14). Slave owners discouraged literacy for a variety of reasons, including to dehumanize them. However, for slaves like Douglass, becoming literate was the most powerful way to prove they were human and utilize a peaceful tool of resistance. For former slaves, “the pen became an instrument of liberation when neither law nor society offered the same” (Blight). As America entered the Civil War era, slave narratives grew in popularity. Indeed, some scholars conclude that it was the slave narratives that forged the large reading audience that Harriet Beecher Stowe then captured in unprecedented numbers with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 (McFeely 208).
The major negative criticism of the Narrative involved its authenticity. Many wondered if a slave could possibly write a book so powerful and stirring.
This would eventually become the reason the book became so influential – its credibility (Sisco 195). Before the publication of the book, Douglass had done anti-slavery speeches where his eloquence was also called into question. He was so well spoken his opponents doubted he had been a slave. Douglass had learned oration and formal pronunciation from listening to white children recite their school lessons while he was still a slave (Thompson). Douglass also credited a book he had “gotten his hands on” as a child called the Columbian Orator, which "gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance" (Douglass 40). Published in 1797, The Columbian Orator, was a collection of political essays, poems, and speeches . Many of the speeches included in the anthology celebrated democratic ideals , including liberty and freedom and “a few passages regarding slavery” (Thompson). Many have hypothesized that it was from the Columbian Orator that Douglass began to “realize that slavery was not something that was set in stone, but rather something that he could attempt to change. (McFeeley 48). The Narrative goes out of its way to state that Douglass was its sole author, and the two original prefaces from famed abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and another abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, corroborated Douglass’s authorship. At the time, slave narratives were often politicized, and under scrutiny over their veracity. Some of the more famous narratives, such as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, were narrated through an amanuensis – through dictation - since the authors were often illiterate (Olney 51). However, the focus on authenticity and the “necessity of endorsement and verification” was a result of what historian David Blight attributes this to “the prejudices of the white reading public than of the literary abilities of former slaves.”
Despite the initial success and lasting legacy of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, it was largely ignored throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Many historians studying slavery did not consider the narratives as legitimate sources. One critic of Douglass’s Narrative was Ulrich B. Phillips. the first American historian to specialize in the social and economic history of slavery (McFeely 81). After extensive historical research, Phillips concluded that ex-slaves left no “genuine written testimony “on what their lives were really like (McFeely 83). Today, Ullrich is seen as being sympathetic to slave owners. Slave narratives resurfaced during The Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950’s and 1960s. They were recognized as true primary sources, capable of transmitting true slave experiences from the time period. These testaments were not “whitewashed” by historians like Ullrich who were interested in painting an idyllic south and slavery as a benign institution.
Slave narratives offer an invaluable research tool and an inspirational tool for civil rights leaders. Historians looked at slave religion, storytelling, psychology and “modes of resistance” (Olney 47). For example, traditional slave storytelling was used to tell their history, reinforce shared identity, and glorify their resilience. Briar Rabbit and Little John fables, portrayed the clever and resourceful underdog as triumphing over the more powerful adversary. These were cleverly hidden stories of slave resistance against their owners. The lessons and tribulations from slaves, gave civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. material with which to historically frame their political discourse (Olney 49-50).
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Narrative was out of print. According to historian William McFeeley, Douglass had been “expunged from the pages of American literary history” (45). There were a variety of reasons for ignoring slave narratives, primarily in the interest of “reconciliation” and due to the conservative homogeneity of 1950’s America. In 1960 Harvard University Press published a new edition of the Narrative that would reintroduce Americans to Douglass (Harvard University Press).
Since the late 1960s, Douglass’s Narrative and slave narratives have
experienced a renaissance (Bruce) His writing has been used as a symbol of the African-American struggle for equality. in 1969 black historian Angela Davis was accused of being a communist and fired from her job at UCLA. She showed up for the first day of her class, on black literature expecting to deliver a lecture to her 166 students. Instead, she found more than 1,500 members of the UCLA student body and faculty who showed up in solidarity. Her lecture that day was on “the profound significance and contemporary relevance of Frederick Douglass’s writing” (Bruce 299). Douglass’s Narrative and provided an “electrifying connection between the struggles of two epochs” (Bruce 300).
Frederick Douglass was an example of the wasted human potential that existed in the cotton fields of the antebellum south. A gifted orater, writer and philosopher, he many have never contribute his writing to American literature, and the world in general if he not escaped slavery. His Narrative is an influential work, its initial success and reemergence as a symbolic and informative text in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s attest to the quality of the writing and importance of the message. it is still widely read today and continues to offer a unique glimpse into the tragedy of American slavery. It’s also a great piece of literature,that stands out among other slave narratives as a timeless classic.
Blight, David W. "The Slave Narratives: A Genre and a Source." THE GILDER LEHRMAN INSTITUTE OF AMERICAN HISTORY. N.p., n.d. Web.
Franklin, H. Bruce. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself: A New Critical Edition (review)." African American Review 44.1 (2011): 298-300.
Douglass, Frederick. The life and times of Frederick Douglass. Courier Dover Publications, 2003.
Martin, Waldo E. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Univ of North Carolina Press, 1986.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. WW Norton & Company, 1995.
Olney, James. "" I Was Born": Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature." Callaloo (1984): 46-73.
Sisco, Lisa. "" Writing in the Spaces Left": Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass." ATQ-KINGSTON- 9 (1995): 195-228.
"Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Revisited." Harvard University Press. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.