This is the account of Frederick Douglass of his time as a slave and as a runaway before he became a public speaker. It was published in 1845 partially, I am told, to counter critics who charged that no runaway slave could possibly be as eloquent and well-spoken as Douglass was. At this time Douglass was in his late twenties based on an age overheard from his master in 1835.
The Dover Thrift Edition I have opens with a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, a leading figure in one wing of the abolitionist party in New England in the time before the Civil War. Garrison expounds on Douglass’s skill as an orator and fulminates on the terrible crime of slavery, particularly as it was practiced in the southern states. It also has a letter from Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass, praising him for writing the “Narrative”.
This work is the work of a speaker. It reads as if Douglass is there speaking and that gives it a certain power that is missing in the prefaces to this work. It begins where Douglass began; on a farm in Maryland. It proceeds through his life with regular digressions reflecting on various topics about slavery in general. He describes how he first learned to read and then to write by various subterfuges. He talks about how slaves were often separated from friends and family at the whim of their owners.
He also describes the evolution of Mrs. Auld as she goes from never having owned a slave to owning him. The transition from being a kind and generous woman to being suspicious and cruel is shown in a bare bones way, but that makes it all the more remarkable as a sign of the corrosiveness of slave ownership.
Another period that is described in some detail is his time with Mr. Covey, a poor farmer who used his reputation as a slave “breaker” to get cheap labor. In the first sixth months Frederick Douglass didn’t resist Covey and was reduced to little more than a brute by hunger, exhaustion, the beatings for any cause, and the stress of never knowing when Covey was watching. After that sixth months Douglass collapsed and went back to his master’s plantation. The master provided no assistance and required Douglass to return to Covey, but when Douglass returned he decided to resist Covey. That resistance saved his life and brought Douglass into a spiritual freedom.
One interesting thing about the account is that almost no one that gave Douglass material aid is ever named and this is explained as an effort not to bring them any embarrassment or other troubles. Despite this often groups of people are described. The exception to naming names is for his owners; who he names and assesses. A few get a kind word and few are described as being the most brutal of wretches, though none is worth being a slave for.
Douglass concludes with an almost bashful account of how he became a public speaker for abolitionists.
This edition continues with an appendix where in Douglass lays into the common American Christianity of his day for gross hypocracy. This brief appendix could be, if read aloud, a powerful and biting indictment.
Douglass’s style is very powerful in this book, especially if you read it aloud or perform it. It is well worth reading both to learn about a dark part of America’s history and also for the incredible style. As Douglass studied “The Columbian Orator” so this work could be fruitfully studied by those interested in the arts of rhetoric.