Frederick Douglass was one of the most important orators of the 19th century, and a well-regarded abolitionist leader. He is also well known for his autobiographies, which provide a detailed account of his childhood as a slave, his unofficial education, and his eventual escape from slavery. In this essay, Douglass’ life and writing will be detailed, in terms of its importance to the overall canon of American literature and the emancipation movement at the time.
Growing up as a slave in Maryland, he was separated from his biological mother and endured many trials and tribulations. Learning how to read from the wife of his owner, as well as various other white children at his plantation, he eventually taught other slaves and escaped his plantation in 1838. Becoming an abolitionist, he later fought hard for suffrage and emancipation during the Civil War, consulting with Abraham Lincoln about how black soldiers should be treated and continuing his now-flourishing career as an orator. Over the course of his life, he had many writings on the subject of emancipation and his life as a slave (Huggins et al., 1980).
Frederick Douglass’ writing style is incredibly detailed and personable. His most famous work is A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, his first of three autobiographies in which he narrates his life as a slave from childhood to his escape. His use of eloquent language and detail help to enhance his argument that black people, given the actual chance for education, have the ability to overcome the stereotype of African-Americans being lazy and stupid.
Douglass often jumps subjects, carrying a somewhat nonlinear narrative throughout the book. This is done in order to focus primarily on the theme of the chapter, instead of a strict progression from event to event. For example, Chapters 5 through 7 detail Mrs. Auld’s attempts to teach Douglass how to read. At first, Mrs. Auld is a very kind woman, but then turns mean and spiteful towards him. However, later in the book, he still paints her as an angelic figure; this points to just how much he focuses on the train of thought more than narrative (Douglass, 1960).
Verbosity is a large part of Douglass’ writing style; large word selections such as “crouching servility,” “sentiments within that lay slumbering” and more betray an eloquence that was not found in many slaves at the time. This was surprising to a degree that some critics of the time actually called the authorship of the book into question (Douglass, 1960).
The subject matter of his books is often on the subject of slavery and emancipation, taking an autobiographical approach to dictating just how cruel slave life can be. His focus is almost always on his relations with the people around him, making it clear just how desperate Douglass was for positive attention in his life. Douglass places a large emphasis on the alienation and loneliness life as a slave brought him – the opening segment is about how he cannot remember his birthday, because the life of a slave has robbed him of one.
The small beacons of hope that are found in the book come from the reassuring singing of the slaves, as well as happy coincidences that subtly improve his station (moving to Baltimore, the slave owner’s wife teaching him how to read). He is also thankful for little things like living elsewhere for the summer just because he knew he would receive food.
In his other works, Douglass focuses on more than just his individual slave experience – in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass emphasizes the barbaric nature of the overall slave experience, in addition to relating it to himself. Noting the preciousness of location to the slave, he argues that “the slave is a fixture; he has no choice, no goal, no destination; but is pegged down to a single spot, and must take root here, or nowhere. The idea of removal elsewhere, comes, generally, in the shape of a threat, and in punishment of crime. It is, therefore, attended with fear and dread” (Douglass, p. 176).
As a writer, Douglass is one of the foremost writers of the 19th century. His detailed writing reflected his oratory, as he was the greatest example of an educated former slave of that time. By linking the life of a slave to his own personal experiences, it lends greater gravity and weight to just how horrific slave life was in the plantation era. The isolation and terror he felt as a slave reflected the slave experience, and the vividness with which he captured that is mesmerizing, a true manifesto for the importance of emancipation (Douglass, 1853).
Critics at the time lauded Douglass’ writing; one critic wrote “we have never read [a narrative] more simple, true, coherent, and warm with genuine feeling” (Fuller in Douglass, 1960). However, there were others who doubted the authorship of his narratives as previously mentioned, since his eloquence was far more than was expected of a slave at the time.
In conclusion, Frederick Douglass remains a vital figure in the emancipation, and a compelling author in his own right. His tales of his childhood and his life as a slave displays an incredible amount of perseverance and resolve, as he portrays a nuanced, detailed account of the ridicule, beatings, and kindness that he experienced. As a result of these experiences, Douglass writes with a deft hand, displaying tremendous eloquence and strong emotion in his autobiographies – the same kind of verbosity that made him such a strong orator.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave,. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. My bondage and my freedom. New York: Arno Press, 1968. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. “The Heroic Slave”. Autographs for Freedom. Ed. Julia Griffiths, Boston: Jewett and Company, 1853. pp. 174–239.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, and Oscar Handlin. Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass. Library of American Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
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