The Life And Times Of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass
This is the third and longest of the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and it raises some interesting questions for the reader. Like Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s sprawling poetic opus, this book serves to update the reader’s understanding of the life of Frederick Douglass not by building onto the previous volumes that the author had written but rather by seeking to replace it with another tale going back to the beginning of the author’s life and going to the present. This reader, at least, wonders whether Douglass kept on going over the same events over and over because of a few interrelated reasons, including the traumatic effects of slavery on his self-conception, on his realization that it was his life in slavery that accounted for the interest that others had in his life, and therefore he did not think he could sell many copies of a work that neglected such important and such relevant aspects of his life by merely writing about his war and postwar experiences as a supplementary volume to his previous writings. The end result is an impressive autobiography, but one which is in some areas redundant when compared to his other works as well as open to questions about the author’s omissions and changes from previous versions.
This book is two parts and forty chapters long and, as a bit of a large print edition, goes to more than 500 pages in length. After illustrations and an introduction, the book begins with an account of the author’s birth (1), his removal from his grandmothers’ place (2), the troubles of growing up in slavery (3), a general survey of a slave plantation (4), the character of his master (5), his reasoning as a child (6), life at the great house (7), characteristics of overseers (8), a change of location (9) to the city, learning to read (10), growing in knowledge (11), and the awakening of his religious nature (12), as well as the troubles of slave life (13) including getting passed around among various slaveowners in the same family, and his hunger at St. Michael’s (14) as well as his experiences with Covey, the slave breaker (15), and some of his experiences in flogging (16, 17), as well as a change of masters (18), an unsuccessful effort at running away (19), life as an apprentice (20), and his escape from slavery (21). The second part of the book then explores the author’s life as a free man, starting with his escape (1), his arrival at New Bedford (2), his introduction to abolitionists (3), the recollections of old friends (4), his frequent attendance at conventions (5), his impressions of life abroad (6), his triumphs and trials (7), his thoughts about John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe (8), his thoughts about politics (9, 10), his discussions about the Civil War and its changes (11, 12), thoughts about his postwar life and political activity (13, 14, 15), as well as chapters dealing with his efforts at reconciliation and his reflection over the course of his life (16, 17, 18, 19), after which there is an appendix and the close of the book.
Ultimately, this is an interesting book but it provides the reader with some questions. The author is very detailed about what he did as a slave and how he got his freedom, but the detail drops considerably as the author gets older. Indeed, this book offers the rather unsettling look at someone’s decline from working hard for the benefit of others to a brief period of working hard and productively for his own benefit, and then a lot of years spent sponging off of the largess of wealthy abolitionists or the federal government. I got the sense in reading this book that Douglass would have been better off as an obscure person working decently and raising his family to work productively rather than to be celebrities of the free black world where there was the entitlement expectation that they would be well off and live like elites, all of which prompted resentment and hostility from others. Alas, Douglass and his family made their choices, and those choices are partly responsible for why this book is still read and still in print even after more than a century and a half after the Civil War has ended.