Review by Nell Irvin Painter in New York Newsday, 20 February 1994
Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative
of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave; My Bondage and
My Freedom; Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
New York: Library Company of America, 1994.
Notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
During his own nineteenth century, handsome, eloquent Frederick
Douglass was known as a "representative colored man," in that
he seemed to be the most admirable example of "the Negro," and
as "the best friend of his race," meaning that he spoke up indefatigably
in what he saw as black people's interests. In the century since his
death, Douglass has acquired increased significance; he has come to be
seen as he wanted to be remembered: as the voice of the slave, as
a crucial part of the American experience.
Douglass became the figurative forefather of a line of
prominent black men that extends to Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther
King, Jr., though W. E. B. Du Bois was always too radical for such a lineage,
and consensus lacks as to who should follow King. The price of Douglass'
and his successors' moderation and their white alliances was an endless
stream of reproach from what might be called the racial left: Martin
Delany in the mid-nineteenth century, Du Bois in the early twentieth
century, and Malcolm X in the mid-twentieth century.
Douglass's public life began when, as a young fugitive
slave from the Maryland Eastern Shore, he sought freedom in New York City,
then New Bedford in 1838. After some success as a Methodist preacher,
he joined the New England (Garrisonian) antislavery movement in
the early 1840s and soon embraced the feminism that prevailed in this
company. Douglass was a knock-out on the lecture circuit. He disparaged
the religion of slaveholders and compared their sumptuousness to the insufficiency
of their slaves. Slavery, he concluded, ruined owners as completely as
it crushed the manhood of slaves. Douglass excelled in the depiction of
the masculine gender politics of slavery, best captured in the story of
his victorious fight with the Negro breaker, Covey, an episode that occurs
in all three of his autobiographies and from which Douglass always emerges
as "A MAN."
Douglass's intelligence soon stirred suspicions in
his audiences that he had never been enslaved. To quell these doubts,
Douglass produced a spare little volume in 1845 that became a best-seller,
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and American Slave,
which is still in print. After acquiring another decade's polish,
Douglass fleshed out his account with a second autobiography: My
Bondage and My Freedom, which many consider his best book.
During his quarter century as an abolitionist, Douglass
often returned to his uneasy relationship to his native land, a democracy
in which his people could not be citizens, a slaveholding republic. His
1852 oration, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"--which
answers "inhuman mockery" and "a sham" (431, 434)--still
resonates today, which would distress Douglass deeply. The Civil War unknotted
Douglass' patriotism, and he embraced the Union wholeheartedly. He
traveled the North, joyfully recruiting black men to volunteer into the
Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry. Douglass's sons were the first
to volunteer into the 54th, which was the subject of the movie "Glory,"
in which the figure of Frederick Douglass appears. Forever after the Civil
War, Douglass called the North "we."
The postwar Douglass has been harder to admire, for despite
his prestige as a forerunner, he fell increasingly out of step with his
people: He naively accepted the presidency of the failing Freedmen's
Bank and presided over the loss of former slaves' precious savings.
He opposed the Exodus to Kansas of 1879, in which thousands of persecuted
blacks from the deep South who feared that they would be reenslaved with
the end of Reconstruction, fled to the free state of Kansas. In 1884 he
married a white woman twenty years his junior, incurring the hostility
of blacks and whites. Perhaps worst was his performance as a Republican
party operative in every presidential election after 1872. In an 1881
self-appraisal, he realized that "My views at this point receive
but limited endorsement among my people." (914)
After a life of slavery and vile discrimination, Douglass
may be forgiven for having been seduced by wealth and respectability after
the Civil War. The seduction tempered his usefulness as a critic of American
politics, but his literary value did not shrink. Along with a tiny number
of black Americans (others include Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Maya
Angelou), he is the author of multiple autobiographies. As a generator
of texts, Douglass is a precious American resource who has inspired discerning
biographies, the most recent by William McFeely.
The present volume combines the three autobiographies,
published in 1845, 1855, and 1881, plus the chapters that Douglass added
to Life and Times in 1891, which trace his development from an
unself-conscious ex-slave into a Victorian statesman who could
look back upon his former self through his readers' eyes. The three
autobiographies together reveal Douglass's lifetime of self-fashioning
as separate reading cannot.
Readers who want to grasp Frederick Douglass, as she presented
himself and as a figure in American public life, will adore this book.
The chronology at the end works like a biography, and notes by Henry Louis
Gates, Jr., show the inner makings of Douglass's ever burgeoning respectability.
Anyone picking up this publication in hopes of finding
one of Gates's perceptive analyses of African-American writing
will be terribly disappointed. For this volume lacks an opening or closing
essay on Douglass by Gates. The only traces of Gates here are aimed at
specialists. Historians of the book will appreciate the fine publishing
history, but most readers are not historians of the book. The rewards
of reading Autobiographies come from a direct encounter with Frederick
Nell Irvin Painter is writing a biography of the feminist
abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, and teaches American history at Princeton
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