Book Review: Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass

Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

This book is a very short work, and the version I had came out to less than 100 pages. In reading this book I was struck by the fact that this book tells exactly what one would expect from the life of Frederick Douglass, no more and no less. The book was written during the time when Douglass was under the influence of William Lloyd Garrison, and the result is by far the most spare and straightforward of the three memoirs that Douglass wrote. Basically, this book might be considered the “good parts” version of Douglass’ life, in that it doesn’t include a lot of Douglass’ analysis of the slave system but focuses on the incidents and narrative of the author’s life. And it should be admitted, even if it is not always a good thing, that the narrative of the author’s life is the most compelling aspect of the author’s thinking. When the author speculates about the hearts and minds and spiritual state of white people, his lack of insight about white people and his lack of sympathy (understandable if lamentable given his situation) makes him a less than worthwhile commentator on “the other” in his life and experience. As a result, this book, which has the least fat to trim and the fewest axes to grind, does the best job at presenting what was most compelling about Douglass’ life experience.

This particular book is less than 100 pages and basically covers Douglass’ life as a slave and the very first part of his life as a free man, when he was actually working and was not such a celebrity that he received various sinecures as a means of profit for himself and for his whole freeloading family. At any rate, this book was written when Douglass was trying to portray himself as a young and active hero of the antislavery cause, and it is spare in its discussion of the evils of slavery, including the pervasive physical and mental and emotional abuse that occurs from other slaves (including one’s own relatives sometimes) as well as masters and other whites. There is a look at matters of the slave grapevine and the status that was provided to those who were able to read in the eyes of other blacks. Douglass seems to be a case study in the idea that literate slaves are not particularly obedient slaves, and that is especially true when those literate slaves pick up on the pro-liberty tradition of the revolutionary generation and inconveniently apply it to their own situation, as is the case here. The results are predictable, including plans to escape and a desire to know and to tap into the network of anti-slavery people who would be willing and able to help Douglass in his freeing himself from intolerable slavery.

There are quite a few compelling aspects of this book that indicate possible areas of insight for Frederick Douglass. For one, we see the effects of growing up without a known father and having an unmistakable need for paternal guidance. Throughout the life of Douglass as a slave we see people whom Douglass looks to with respect, and even Douglass’ relationship with Garrison is akin to a troubled relationship between a surrogate father and a son who both needs and resents the inequality of such relationships. Douglass’ troublemaking, something that shows in all of his autobiographies with a certain degree of fondness on his part, but a lot of that appears to be due to that misguided and frustrated father hunger, something that is all the more poignant when one considers the likelihood that his first master was indeed his father, given that man’s fondness for taking advantage of slave women and girls. Of course, if this is hinted at in the book, it gives at least some reason for Douglass’ insolence as a slave and his frustration that no one was willing to acknowledge him as their child.

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 History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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