Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
A Novel that Changed America
Introduction and Thesis
In 2012, the Library of Congress announced a new exhibition titled “Books That Shaped America” from American authors over the last hundred years. The exhibit displayed eighty-eight books originally and has now expanded to one hundred. The book selection, chosen specifically from “American authors that provoked thought, controversy and change throughout American history” (Gavin). The purpose of the specific collection was to present books that had a significant impact that influenced the lives and history of Americans. It also serves as a starting point to initiate conversations about the books exhibited and how books, in general, can generate and have the power to influence, inspire, and change people. Therefore, this article will review one of those books, in particular, to discuss how the selected book has “shaped America” and its relevance to today. The books exhibited in chronological order with Frederick Douglass, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845) listed at number seventeen of the exhibit.
About the Author
Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Talbot, Maryland, in February 1818, on the tobacco plantation known as the Holme Hill Farm, to a slave Harriet Bailey, but was raised by his grandmother, Betsy Bailey (Blight; McKivigan and Kaufman). Shortly after given birth to him, Douglass’s mother Harriet was traded to work on another farm. Douglass’s father is unknown, but there is evidence to suggest either one of the two slave owners to be his father. “The first owner, Aaron Anthony, or his second owner, Thomas Auld, to whom he was bequeathed on Anthony’s death” (McKivigan and Kaufman).
At the age of six, Douglass’s grandmother discarded him to the Wyn House, the main quarters of the Lloyd plantation. In 1826, Douglass is loaned off to become a slave champion to the Auld family’s son, Thomas Auld. The young Douglass did not know how much his life would significantly change. With the Auld family, Douglass learned to read and became literate, thanks to Sophia Auld, the wife of Hugh Auld.
In 1833, Aaron Anthony died. Resulting in the teenage Douglass becoming the property to yet another slave owner Thomas Auld, to only then be hired out to a “slave breaker” Edward Covey and later to William Freeland. While temporarily hired to work with William Freeland, Douglass planned an escape, however, was jailed for conspiracy to steal a boat and run away with other slaves. Thomas Auld bailed out Douglass from jail with the promise to free him at the age of 25 only if Douglass agreed to be obedient; however, in 1838, Douglass successfully escaped by disguising himself as a free black sailor (McKivigan and Kaufman).
To avoid recapture, Douglass, a fugitive for being a “runaway slave,” changed his surname from “Baily” to “Douglass.” He chose “Douglass, the name of a leading character from Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, on account of its heroic sound” (McKivigan and Kaufman). Douglass spent the next nine years as a fugitive, avoiding recapture while campaigning and writing small publications contributing to his commitment to abolish slavery. Hence, the Lloyd plantation, the Auld family, and twenty years’ life experiences as a slave and nine as a runaway fugitive are all depicted in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” published in 1845. Douglass went on to live a long life committed to public affairs. Douglass lived to see black emancipation, actively work with the women’s suffrage movement, and be part of the civil rights movement (Blight). Douglass was a strong public figured and lived a life as a servant leader to justice and equality to all. Douglass died in his home of a sudden heart attack in 1885, after attending a women’s rights rally (McKivigan and Kaufman).
About the Book
Published in 1845, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” is one of three autobiographies written by himself. The book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” was written as a response to countless persons questioning the merits of Frederick Douglass as ever being a slave since he spoke so eloquently in his literary works and speeches. Therefore, the book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” is an autobiography about a young slave boy (Frederick Douglass) and his experiences as a slave. Douglass wrote his book as a testament to his experiences and documented the evil truth of slavery. His book served as a revolutionary memoir, used to illuminate the brutality, injustice, harsh truths of slavery, and the multiple meanings of freedom, as he acquires it. Throughout the memoir, Douglass wrote how slaves were kept ignorant by their slave owners. He also wrote the importance of knowledge and how he obtained the power of knowledge through learning to read, which aided him to his freedom. Also, Douglass talks about Christianity and questions the moral ethics and defies the moral reasonings of owning slaves. Therefore, the themes throughout the autobiography are slavery, ignorance, knowledge, freedom, and Christianity. Douglass’ wrote his memoir simple to understand and straightforward.
Nonetheless, Frederick Douglass left an impeccable legacy through his work and service as a public figure. Arguably one of the most influential black American men in history. He took his life experiences and turned them into a powerful testament that roused the nation during a time where slavery was legal and when he himself was yet freed but a fugitive on the run. Douglass spent his life work fighting and campaigning against adversities. Not only did Douglass write three autobiographies, but he also published for sixteen years an abolitionist newspaper and wrote in columns of other publications. He supported the “Underground Railroad.” He was welcomed by President Abraham Lincoln and aided in the abolishment of slavery and the emancipation proclamation of the 13th amendment as well as women’s rights and laid the way to the start of the civil rights movement.
Moreover, one of the most amazing aspects of Fredrick Douglass’ life was how he became the first African American to receive a vote for the US Presidency, in 1888, at the Republican National Convention (Williams). Frederick Douglass is recognized in history for speaking his truth and unveiling the harsh hypocrisy of a nation boasting about being “The land of the Free” with democracy, liberty, and justice for all, in a nation of slave owners. The fundamentals and ideals spoken by Frederick Douglass are still relevant and cited to this day. Conceivably, the reason Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” is listed as one of the books that helped “Shaped America.” As David Blight stated, “Douglass the autobiographer endures for many reasons, but not least because his writing represents both the brilliant complaint and the audacious hope of the slave who stole the master’s language and reimagined himself in prose poetry” (Blight). Blight wrote a new biography of Frederick Douglass, titled “Fredrick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards for his literary work on Fredrick Douglass (Blight). Therefore, Douglass’ life work continues to make an impact. Thus, Frederick Douglass is one of the most influential black American Man, and his autobiography helped shaped America.
Blight, David. “What Frederick Douglass Revealed-and Omitted-in His Famous Autobiographies.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2 Dec. 2018, www.history.com/news/frederick-douglass-book-omissions-autobiography.
Gavin, Jennifer. “Library of Congress ‘Books That Shaped America’ Available on Amazon.” The Library of Congress, 22 Jan. 2013, www.loc.gov/item/prn-13-005/books-that-shaped-america-on-amazon/2013-01-22/#:~:text=They%20are%20The%20Bay%20Psalm,1959)%3B%20%E2%80%9CSlaughterhouse%2DFive%E2%80%9D.
McKivigan, John R., and Heather L. Kaufman. “IN THE WORDS OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS: INTRODUCTION.” “INTRODUCTION” in “IN THE WORDS OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS” on Cornell University Press Digital Platform, Cornell University Press, 2012, cornellpress.manifoldapp.org/read/in-the-words-of-frederick-douglass/section/5128bfaf-31b0–445d-add6–3707f9531db0.
Williams, Yohuru. “Why Frederick Douglass Matters.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 10 Feb. 2018, www.history.com/news/frederick-douglass-bicentennial.