Nell Irvin Painter


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 Douglass.

Nell Irvin Painter is writing a biography of the feminist abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, and teaches American history at Princeton University.

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