Book Review: If I Survive

If I Survive: Frederick Douglass And Family In The Walter O. Evans Collection, edited by Celeste-Marie Bernie and Andrew Taylor

I found this book deeply frustrating to read. In the midst of this staggering collection of manuscripts included in facsimile as well as transcribed from Frederick Douglass and his family there is a truly great work of documentary history that is covered with a large degree of padding from the editors who seem to want to make their own reputation and demonstrate their own mastery of contemporary trends of leftist historiography and whiny political activism that hang over this great work like parasitic creeping vines drying to draw clout from it. This would still be a very large work if it had the facsimile papers and transcriptions, which are what anyone wants or needs to get out of this work, but it would at least be a work that would be an undoubted masterpiece rather than a deeply flawed one. This is the sort of book that is required reading for anyone who wants to write and research Frederick Douglass’ family life, as it contains a lot of essential materials to knowing Douglass as a family man, but lamentably the editors know this as well and so they seize upon their documentary history work as a way of promoting their own political and historical agendas. If this is inevitable, it is also lamentable.

This book, including its hefty introduction, comes in at between 850 and 900 pages of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, making this the sort of book that could be potentially fatal if it fell on someone. Even so, despite its massive weight, its contents are rather straightforward. The book contains a substantial introductory section that includes a list of illustrations, a foreword, a preface about the Walter O. Evans collection of black history, the family tree of Frederick Douglass to the third generation, acknowledgements, a note on texts and editorial practice, and an introduction that looks at the told story of Frederick Douglass and the untold story of his family that this book, obviously, seeks to tell. After that comes ten parts of various sizes, including the family chronologies of Frederick Douglass and his three sons, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., and Charles Remond (I), the love story between Lewis and Helen Amelia Loguen (II), the war letters of Lewis and Charles (III), including still more letters between Lewis and his beloved, various historical manuscripts of Frederick Douglass of considerable historic value (IV), family letters encouraging pluck and other virtues in the postwar family, also of considerable interest (V), some fragmentary works from Frederick Douglass Jr. and Virginia Douglass (VI), a narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass from his son Charles (VII), photographs and prints of Douglass and his family, some of which contain unknown presumable relatives (VIII), family resources for the Douglass family (IX), and the Helen Amelia Loguen correspondence (X), after which the book ends with an afterword and an index.

Even as a reader who is not prone to think very highly of the ideas of the author, the works included here are compelling. The documents included here are impressive and deserve to be well-read. There is the epic love story between Lewis Douglass and the woman who became his wife, Helen Amelia Loguen, their romance interrupted by war and their ability to have children sabotaged by his serious war injuries. There are letters from Douglass to friends and family, including some touching comments to his grandson regarding a thank-you note about a flute. If it is lamentable that we get so much stroking of the ego of the Walter O. Evans collection and the people responsible for its contents, these documents show a successful black family engaged in public work, interesting private lives, and thoughtful evaluations on political and social matters, including the beginnings of the Great Migration, in which Douglass is an understandably sympathetic observer of the desire of blacks from the deep South to better themselves by moving elsewhere in search of jobs and lands free from the burdens of sharecropping.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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