1 December 2012
Investigating Frederick Douglass: A Research Journal
Introduction: The Writer Who Followed Me
Every student has a writer who follows him. Frederick Douglass is that writer for me. I first encountered The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself in my junior year of high school. We studied the book for its symbolism and as an example of American Romanticism. Three years later, I read the book in an undergraduate course on the American Renaissance. Another year passed, and the book popped up on a reading list for a course called “The Coming of the Civil War.” We studied the book as a slave narrative and a historical document of the horrors of slavery, as well as a contribution to the growing unrest that led to war. Finally, I read the book again this past September as an example of American minority literature.
One of the things I admire about Douglass is how liberal he was with incriminating details. For example, in the second chapter, he begins: “My master's family consisted of two sons, Andrew and Richard; one daughter, Lucretia, and her husband, Captain Thomas Auld. They lived in one house, upon the home plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd,” and he continues to list the location of the plantation and the occupations of his owners (Narrative 46). Douglass was bold to be so open.
I have always wondered, though: Was Douglass telling the truth?
Despite my familiarity with the text, I have never investigated the veracity of Douglass's claims. I have never engaged in Douglass scholarship, nor have I read his other work. The purpose of this journal is to engage in that scholarship. To borrow Tanya Stanley's phrase, it follows a path of learning as I attempt to answer two questions: first, was Douglass telling the truth when he wrote his famous Narrative, and second, what does it mean if he fibbed? For answers, I turned toward three sources: biographies, autobiographies, and literary criticism. The answer to the first question is a resounding “Yes, but not all of it,” with each writer offering a different view as to why Douglass might have fudged details or revised his story. Ultimately, my quest for truth turned into a quest to discover how Frederick Douglass crafted an identity through letters.
I. The Curious Biography
In my quest for the truth regarding Douglass's past, I decided to search through biographies of the writer. There are dozens of books about Douglass, some about his entire life, others about only portions. Among my options were Phillip S. Foner's Frederick Douglass: A Biography (1964), The Mind of Frederick Douglass by Waldo E. Martin (1984), and the aptly-named Frederick Douglass by Benjamin Quarles (1948). However, for the sake of brevity, I knew I could only read one biography. With its unique thesis and focus specifically on Douglass's Narrative, Dickson J. Preston's Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years looked like the best place to discover the truth behind the legend.
Preston holds that “Douglass led a privileged, protected life guided more by the toleration and good will of whites than by their enmity and brutality” (Beeth 94). Not only did Douglass occasionally fudge the truth, he did so purposely. Young Frederick Douglass (YFD) reads like a tell-all book. Preston's observations have all the power of a pin puncturing a well-polished parade balloon. “It...became evident that the common picture of Douglass's boyhood as one of deprivation and cruelty was largely a myth, fostered at least in part by Douglass himself. He dwelt so much on his bad experiences...that readers and hearers could not be blamed if they thought those were the rule rather than the exception in his youth” (Preston xiv-xv). Douglass was well aware of the disparity between the figures he painted in his speeches and writings and reality. Preston proposes that we actually get “two Frederick Douglasses: the public figure overflowing with wrath against the institution of slavery and willing to make use of anyone and anything in his zeal to destroy it; and the private human being, warmly sentimental about his Maryland boyhood and filled with love for the people who had been part of it” (xv). Preston concludes that Douglass's “rise to greatness [is] remarkable, but not inexplicable...It should be kept in mind that he had helping hands along the way, and that not all of them were black” (xvi).
As amazing as it sounds, and as much as I wanted to jump and shout “caught you, Frederick!” my first foray into Douglass scholarship proved to be a lesson in a caution. A second reason I was attracted to YFD was the pedigree and subject matter of the book's forward. Novelist James A. Michener opens the biography with an interesting story. Michener discovered Preston and his manuscript while researching a novel about the Chesapeake Bay. Finding a publisher was difficult. Two different editors told him “Regardless of its merits, we've reached a point in our cultural history when any book about Frederick Douglass must be written by a black. We can't run the risk of offering one by a white man” (Michener xi).
YFD was published in 1980, and thank goodness that scholarship has come a long way in the last 32 years. Yet, something felt off as I started reading the book proper. I glanced at Preston's “Acknowledgements” page and figured out why. Preston received access to the Auld family's archives in preparing the book, and he specifically credits Carl G. Auld “for his long and unflagging enthusiasm for the project” (xvii).
Suddenly, the more I read, the more I could not help but feel like Preston was going out of his way to make Douglass's former master look good rather than present a fair and balanced portrait of Douglass.
The book goes through Frederick Douglass's early life. As H. Leon Prather remarks in his review, “the opening chapters provide us with a socioeconomic background” and “an excellent case study of slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore” (274). The book goes on to challenge Douglass on assertions such as his use of real names, dates, and locations. For the most part, Douglass gets things right, sometimes erring on accident. It is when Preston tries to prove Douglass wrong that he sounds like he is trying to cover up for the Auld family. One example is the battle with Covey.
By any measure, the battle with Covey was a turning point for Douglass, yet why Covey never pursues Douglass after the fight is troubling. Douglass says that the fight was a blow to his pride as a slave breaker. Yet Preston speculates, “One suspects that Thomas Auld, despite his stern official manner toward Frederick, intervened with Covey, warned him he had gone too far, and instructed him to be gentler in future” (129). Master Auld sounds like a guardian angel in this passage. No wonder the Aulds were so enthusiastic about the project!
The book later focuses on Douglass's attempts to meet with his former masters after the end of the Civil War. Douglass relates these stories in his third book, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, but by the time Preston reaches scenes of interracial reconciliation, the book's tone has grown so tolerant towards the Aulds that it borders on poor scholarship. Preston remarks at one point, “Sympathetic readers want Frederick to have a miserable childhood, and his repeated references to the fact that he had been a favored slave are brushed off as mere sarcasm” (173). As I would later learn, Preston is not the only person to point out Douglass's unfairness to Auld. Yet, Preston stretches as far as he can to make Douglass out to be a self-obsessed liar.
Preston's biography provided an answer to my initial question: was Douglass telling the truth in his original Narrative? The answer is “kind of.” Despite a revolutionary-sounding thesis, Preston never overturns Douglass. He simply provides contextual information and some commentary on what Douglass leaves out. Outside of the Auld family's private correspondences, Preston used Frederick Douglass's other two autobiographies as major sources, as just a glance at any of the “Notes” pages reveals countless citations to them, especially his second autobiography. If I wanted to know more about Douglass and the truth, I would need to see what revisions he made in future works. So on a Saturday afternoon, I wandered into Barnes and Noble and purchased My Bondage and My Freedom.
II. The Even More Curious Autobiography
A cursory glance at My Bondage and My Freedom (MB) is enough to understand that Douglass was striving for something all together different from Narrative. The book is three times as long. The “Table of Contents” alone fills ten pages. I also noticed an immediate difference in presentation. The Narrative is introduced by Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, both prominent, white abolitionists. MB is introduced by an unnamed editor, Douglass, and Dr. James McCune Smith, a black physician. I kept these observations in mind as I turned toward secondary sources to learn more about the book.
Brent Hayes Edwards introduces the Barnes and Noble Classics edition of MB by addressing the question that critics then and now ask when they encounter the text: “Why would Douglass have been compelled to write the story of his life again?” (xvii). The answer is not as simple as one would hope it to be, but Edwards does his best to suggest why. MB is “written from an entirely different vantage point—one might say that it is composed by an entirely different writer” (xix). Douglass is writing after breaking with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, after working as an editor of his own paper for seven years, and after a long speaking tour in Europe. Additionally, Douglass is more educated in the genre of autobiography: “In other words, MB became necessary in part as a result of this extensive experience and exposure to a wide segment of the American literary scene.” 10 years older and much more experienced as a writer, Douglass had a “much clearer sense of the kind of autobiography he wanted to write, and a much broader expertise in the craft of writing to do it” (xx).
The publication of Narrative “propelled Douglass on a path that led to the composition of MB” (Edwards xx). Douglass's speaking tour in Europe was in part to avoid being recaptured and brought back to slavery. In Europe, Douglass was “impressed by the relative absence of racism” compared to what he found in the North after making his escape (xxi). Racism appears throughout the book. For example, Douglass is denied service in restaurants in the North simply because of his color. Even the Garrisonians, whom he embraced at the end of the Narrative, have devastating prejudices.
Douglass's break with Garrison is multifaceted. Garrison did not want Douglass to start his paper, The North Star (later called The Frederick Douglass Paper). The two also differed in their view of the US Constitution. Garrison was in favor of total disunion. He wanted the non-slave holding states to “dissolve their federation with the slave states of the South” because the Constitution was designed with slavery in mind (Edwards xxiv). Douglass, however, saw salvation through the Constitution; instead of breaking from it, slavery could be beaten within it. Douglass's paper did more than lead to a break with Garrison. It put him in contact with leading black intellectuals like Martin R. Delany and James McCune Smith (who provides the introduction for MB). “One way to describe the difference between [Narrative and MB] is to suggest that if Narrative is the story of the making of a public speaker, MB is the story of the making of an editor” (xxix).
Edwards proceeds to point out examples of revision in the text and suggests reasons why certain things were added or removed. One of the most interesting revisions is Hugh Auld's warning on literacy. Whereas in Narrative the passage is presented as a moment of pure revelation, the revision in MB finds the event humorous: Auld gives Douglass the first “decidedly anti-slavery lecture' he had ever heard” (Edwards xxxi-xxxii). Douglass also elaborates on the Freeland escape plan by inserting an extended paragraph on Patrick Henry's “Give me liberty or give me death” maxim. The expansion ends, “I believe there was not one among us, who would not rather have been shot down, than pass away life in hopeless bondage” (MB 213). Edwards goes on to suggest that “MB is above all a search for community, and in the end it turns away from models of familial paternity, political hierarchy, and artistic apprenticeship in favor of fraternity” (xxxv).
The “most striking revision and elaboration” was made to the passage in which Douglass is forced to beg and steal in Chapter Nine of Narrative (Edwards xxxvi). In the revision, Douglass actually defends stealing by reasoning that it is was “taking the meat out of one tub and putting it into another; the ownership of the meat was not affected by the transaction. At first, he owned it in the tub, and last, he owned it in me” (MB 148). He goes on to defend stealing in a slave society in general. Morality has no application in a slave society. “If [the slave] steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution” (149). Edwards notes that this is a celebrated passage that evokes the spirit of revolution, but does not go further in his analysis. This is the sort of Douglass that you do not study in high school, so it is unfortunate that he misses the opportunity to say more.
Edwards returns to his initial question as the introduction comes to a close: why write the story of his life again? Douglass opens the book by talking about his grandmother. In one passage, he is carried on her back through a dense forest where everything seems to come alive. But he notes that as he comes closer to each terrifying image, it reveals itself to be something ordinary—an illusion. “Thus early I learned that the point from which something is viewed is of some importance” (MB 48). Edwards observes that this “insight about the relativity of perspective comes to inform the tone of the book” (xxxviii).
This insight does more than just set the tone of the book, but also answers my second question: what does it mean for Douglass to revise his story? By focusing on perspective, Douglass says that truth has many meanings. It is up to the writer to pick which one works at any given time.
Edwards's introduction provided many answers that Dickson J. Preston's book promised. It pointed out where Douglass changed his story, offered reasons why, but unlike Preston, it never questioned the writer's sincerity. Something Edwards hints at but never fully explores is the book's place in the canon of American Literature. Course Objective 5b. asks us to “assess the status of minority writers in the 'canon' of what is read and taught in schools.” I read Narrative in a course on the American Renaissance. Why didn't I read MB? On the suggestion of a certain professor, I scoured the M.D. Anderson Library for William L. Andrews's essay “My Bondage and My Freedom and the American Literary Renaissance of the 1850's” to find an answer.
In the essay, Andrews places MB within the literary traditions of the 1850's, specifically as a book with an “I-narrator” in the vein of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Andrews looks at Smith's introduction to MB, in which Smith dubs Douglass a “representative man” because he lived in every social position America has to offer—as a slave and a free man. Because of this, Andrews asserts that “MB...became the first Afro-American autobiography publicly designed to argue that a black man's life story had a wider significance than was usually accorded to the narratives of former slaves” (134). MB sought to be more than slave narrative, and instead would examine Douglass's life as “nationally significant” for the North and the South.
The phrase “representative man” comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who believed that “representative men....revealed moral truths to the general mind” which would then stimulate enlightenment (Andrews 134). The great social service of the “representative man,” therefore, “was to liberate and inspire democracy in which, not above which, he lived.” MB is an important contribution to the literature of the time because it reveals the strengths and frailties of the protagonists and critiques individualism at a “time of rampant romantic egoism in American letters.”
Andrews provides more background information on the book by referring to Douglass's “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July?”speech. In the context of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which essentially allowed “anyone in the North or the South [to] take possession of a black person simply by convincing a federal magistrate that he or she owned that person,” the book becomes key in criticizing the empty-promise of freedom for blacks (Andrews 136).
In many ways, MB syncs up with the idea of the African American Dream (Objective 3a) better than Narrative. Andrews notes that while many leading black intellectuals like Martin R. Delany thought that blacks should “embrace exile from America as a badge of honor,” Douglass continued to believe in the “promise of America.” Oddly, though Andrews does not refer to F.O. Matthiesen's book, The American Renaissance, in an essay about the subject, Douglass's belief in democracy is clearly what places him in the time period.
Andrews never directly answers the question “Why revise Narrative?” but instead offers the rebuttal, “Why not?” Narrative and MB are very different books with very different purposes. The new material is attributed to a different, older Douglass. “In 1855,” Andrews writes, “he could no longer see his life reaching its climax in his incorporation into the Garrisonian sphere” (139). In this new book, the very goals of Douglass's life had changed. Narrative showed Douglass hungry for freedom, but “MB suggests that before the ideal of freedom had infused his consciousness, his heart had been profoundly touched by a hunger for home.” Douglass also depicts himself not as a rampant individualist, but as an “authority seeker” (140). “The goal of the writing of Douglass's second autobiography was freedom from the prisons of both individualism and authoritarianism in a truly communal Afro-American home.”
Andrews notes that Douglass sets up relationships with a number of authority figures throughout the text, including Captain Anthony, the Aulds, Garrison, and Charles Lawson, a black minister who led Douglass to Christ; by the end of the book, Douglass breaks with each figure. His alternative to paternal authority is fraternal relationships, which he develops during the Freeland escape plan. Fraternal relationships act as a model for home for spiritually displaced Afro-Americans, especially with an emphasis on self-reliance but with a unity of purpose (Andrews 142).
Both Edwards and Andrews conclude that MB is in many respects an attempt to “Reidentify himself as a leader and spokesman of a nationwide Afro-American community” (Andrews 143). The book “reflects his realization that any ascendant Afro-American needed a communal anchor before he or she could attain a truly liberating identity as both an individual and a part of a larger social whole.”
Andrews returns to the American Renaissance at the end of the essay, where he places Douglass within the writing of Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. Ultimately, Douglass “emphasized the idea that human beings, individually and collectively, share a potential for evolution toward a higher self-awareness, fulfillment, and ethical discernment” (Andrews 145). MB is a book not about a “self-made man, but a man still in the making” (146).
Looking at Andrews's essay, I can say that MB was just as representative of the American Renaissance as Narrative. I see both books as achieving different ambitions. Preston, Edwards, Andrews, and my own observations also seem to agree that Douglass's new book was his attempt to reshape his identity. I wanted to know more about this process. For answers, I turned toward literary criticism.
III. Curious Literary Criticism
I ran a number of searches in the library databases. My first was for “Frederick Douglass” and “truth.” I sifted through the search results till I found three articles that looked promising. I set the articles aside and flipped through the library books that I had checked out during my initial search for a biography. After skimming through dozens of articles, I found two that I feel worth including in this journal. I chose these articles based on the following criteria: they were recent (within the last five years) and they dealt with how identity works in Douglass.
Objective 1c. asks us to “observe alternate identities and literary strategies developed by minority cultures to gain voice and choice,” and among these strategies, “double language,” the use of the same words with different meanings, is most common in minority literature. In “Resistance is Not Futile: Frederick Douglass on Panoptic Plantations and the Un-Making of Docile Bodies and Enslaved Souls,” Cynthia R. Nielsen examines how Douglass appropriates the language and institutions of a slave society and redirects them in his bid for freedom.
Nielsen argues that Douglass “describes how his sociopolitical identity was scripted by the white other and constrained through constant surveillance and disciplinary dispostifs” (251). She examines how Douglass resisted enslavement through the lens of Michel Foucault's power relations as seen in his book Discipline and Punishment, as well as through authoritative and internally persuasive discourse defined by Mikhail Bakhtin.
Nielsen begins by examining the processes by which slaveholders reduced “slaves to the status of (non-rational) animal or beast” (252). These included withholding birth information, true parentage, and denial of familial bonds (in the case of Douglass, all three). Nielsen draws from Foucault's “panopticicism,” or the concept of constant surveillance. She uses Covey's sudden appearances as a primary example. These have religious parallels, as Covey mimics “the divine attribute of omnipresence in order to impose his will upon his subjects and further assert his sovereignty” (254). Covey makes his gaze present everywhere, and a broken slave was one that “in Foucauldian terms, the internalization of the panoptic gaze and the subsequent creation of a new subjectivity, the slave subject” (255).
Nielsen references John Sekora's article “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative.” Frequently, slave narratives were transcribed, edited, and/or introduced by white men. This acted as a kind of “white envelope,” as “the white other in the form of editor and reputed intellectually superior” could control the slave's story (Nielsen 258). As I noted, MB is introduced by a black man and not by Garrison.
Nielsen continues by examining literacy. Douglass, she observes, wants to learn how to read because Auld says that it will ruin him (259). She quotes from Lisa Sisco, who argues that Douglass sees literacy as “the ability to redefine relationships of authority.” This continues into a reading of the text through Bakhtin's authoritative discourse and internally persuasive discourse. Basically, we define an redefine ourselves through a continual process of “ideological becoming,” and this occurs through “selectively assimilating the words of others.” Douglass hears authoritative words from his masters and rephrases them to suit his needs. Douglass notices that literacy is a way that slaveholders assert power (263). He then maneuvers around the system by learning to read by watching ship carpenters put letters together. The ship is a way that slaves are transported and enslaved. By learning to read, he has reoriented an enslaving institution and created a liberating one. His voice is gains power by subverting and “re-appropriating the dominant discourses of the day” (266).
From Nielsen's discussion of power-relations, I turn toward a discussion that directly pertains to my question of why Douglass revised his work. In “Identity in Autobiography,” Robert S. Levine examines Douglass's three big works and traces the changes to his identity in each. “He tells the same story differently in his autobiographies, depending on the larger truths he wishes to underscore at the time of composition” (Levine 31). However, Douglass never fully reaches a stable identity. It is always “tied to to the contingencies of the historical moment and to the problematics (and challenges) of the autobiographer's art.”
Levine proceeds to analyze each work individually starting with Narrative. Like Nielsen, Levine quotes John Sekora. He proposes that Garrison's “white envelope” explains why Douglass never reaches his full identity. The structure of the Narrative is circular. It begins with Garrison's praise for Douglass and ends with Douglass taking up the Garrisonian cause. Also like Nielsen, Levine discusses Douglass's ability to use the language of the oppressor to escape oppression. In this case, it is his ability to analyze the events he is narrating. By drawing on “Scottish commonsense traditions,” Douglass demonstrates “against the grain of the emerging racist science of the period, and the Garrisonians own racist paternalism, that blacks are just as capable as whites of rational thought and feeling” (33).
The identity that Douglass creates in Narrative is fragile. “The confused sense of genealogical relations of the opening chapter, the fraternal connections he feels toward black slaves when they sing their sorrow songs, the liberatory possibilities that he perceives in literacy, and the Romantic yearnings expressed in the Chesapeake apostrophe all suggest a Douglass who cannot easily be constrained or explained, by the the identity that is highlighted a the close of the Narrative” (Levine 36).
As I noted in my study of MB, Douglass's second autobiography comes after a number of changes in his life, including a break with his mentor, his editorship, etc. Levine says that MB forges an identity that embraces blackness as Douglass “asserts in the strongest possible terms the importance of blacks taking the leadership role in interrelated struggle for black elevation in the North and the liberation of slaves in the South” (36). Douglass “crafts his identity as a black Moses in accord with a more insistently racialized vision of his connections to the larger African American community.”
As an example, Levine brings up revisions to the fight with Covey. Whereas before, Douglass made it a one-on-one fight between himself and the slave breaker, in the 1855 revision, Douglass has the aid of a slave named Caroline and a free black man named Bill Smith. Levine says that Douglass “de-emphasizes his exceptionality and points to the importance of black women...and black men on his emergence as a black leader” (38).
However, like Narrative, identity is never certain. Levine points toward romantic passages and a letter to Garrison written overseas that shows Douglass feels uneasy. He seems “subsumed into a larger black diaspora taking little heed of nation and representative leadership” (Levine 39).
Levine claims that Douglass wanted to “shore up his identity as an African American leader” in Life and Times (39). The book was also about “self vindication” after 26 years in national service. Douglass reports slightly idealized versions of events after Narrative. For example, he writes like he supported Lincoln 100%, but in reality, he scathingly criticized the president on a number of occasions. Douglass tries to embody Lincoln's “malice toward none” principle. His reunion scenes with former masters are about forgiveness. Douglass asks Thomas Auld to forgive him for portraying him as a villain and receives it. Levine suggests that “Douglas uses his identity as race leader and Lincoln-inspired patriot to underscore the continued possibilities for interracial reconciliation” (41). Yet the revised, 1892 version of Life and Times raises questions about Douglass's national identity. At one point, Douglass was forced to step down as US Ambassador to Haiti because of accusations that his sympathy for the black nation prevented US plans for a military base (42). Levine suggests that Douglass “puts his US and Haitian honors in equal balance, and thus to the same extent suggests a collapse of key aspects of his representative identity as a US nationalist and leader of African Americans” (43).
Both Levine and Nielsen suggest that identity in Douglass is much more complex than I initially thought. Whether working within racist institutions to weed out racism or finding freedom through oppression, Douglass's literary identity constantly shifted in order to suit whatever the text required.
Conclusion: I Follow the Writer
After emerging myself in Douglass scholarship and reporting on a handful of it, I feel like I can safely answer my initial questions. First: Was Douglass telling the truth when he wrote his famous Narrative? The answer is, “Yes, but not all of it.” Second: What does it matter if he did? I think that to understand Douglass, one has to understand perspective. The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass had very specific goals in mind. It was about telling his story to a mass audience. It was about proving black intellectuals not only exist, but can thrive just as well as white intellectuals (Levine 33). It was about contributing to the end of slavery in the United States. It was about self-discovery, self-expression, and self-validation. Yet it was also the work of a young man that had spent the majority of his life in bondage. Later revisions to his life story do not invalidate the Narrative. They add the perspective of an older, wiser, more experienced Douglass.
Over the course of this journal, I studied biographies, autobiographies, and literary criticism. I began with Dickson J. Preston's book Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years with hopes that its thesis, that Douglass actually led a privileged life, would shake the world of Douglass as I knew it. Instead, I discovered a book that speculates on history and attempts to portray Douglass's former master as a benevolent angel. This led me to inspect Preston's sources, specifically My Bondage and My Freedom. For information on the book, I turned to Brent Hayes Edwards's introduction, as well as William L. Andrews's article “MB and the American Literary Renaissance of the 1850's.” Both writers show that Douglass's second autobiography is far from a superfluous retread of his first book, and instead a rebranding of his identity. This led me to consider Douglass's work as the work of a writer whose concept of self was in constant flux. I sought out current scholarship to support that idea and found it in the work of Cynthia R. Nielsen and Robert S. Levine. Nielsen examines how power relations work in the original Narrative, while Levine noted how Douglass's identity changed with each retelling of his story. Of all the criticism I encountered, most dealt with either Narrative or MB, while the rest dealt with Douglass as a historical figure or politician. Douglass scholarship is vast, varied, and shows no signs of slowing down.
The wonderful thing about learning is that we never stop. This journal followed a path of learning, and it is only by necessity that I draw it to a close. I am not finished walking that path. First, I want to read My Bondage and My Freedom in its entirety. The downside to this journal was its focus on secondary sources. Reading from a primary source will be a welcome change. Second, I want to look at Douglass's speeches. Armed with knowledge about his life and the times that he lived in, I feel like I can fully appreciate each twist of rhetoric and understand the message that he wanted to communicate to his peers (and his enemies). Finally, with the information included in this journal and information left on the cutting board, I have amassed enough critical knowledge of the writer to enter the discussion myself. I think it is worth looking at how his texts use the truth in order to achieve certain goals.
When I did my undergraduate work at the University of Texas, I would often pass beneath the UT Tower on my way to class, the library, the Drag, or whatever adventure I had planned. Carved into its face, just above Greco-Roman columns, is the phrase “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The words come from John 8:32. I have always admired the statement. Regardless of religious beliefs, as academics, we look for enlightenment in a certain higher reality. We believe that certain things hold more value than others, and as we find those things, we inform the world about them. Whether through literature, science, philosophy, or mathematics, we are dedicated to a pursuit of knowledge.
Frederick Douglass has always fascinated me because of his trust in the truth. He opens My Bondage and My Freedom with an invitation to his reader. The book is not “a work of ART, but...a work of FACTS—FACTS, terrible and almost incredible, it may be—yet FACTS, nevertheless” (7). What is the truth? How do we use the truth when we find it? These questions had relevance in the 1850's, and they still do. Perhaps the reason Douglass's work endures is because he trusts his reader with the most intimate details of his life. He reports his trials and tribulations, his success and his failures equally. He has given us a lasting body of work that keeps us involved more than 150 years later.
Andrews, William L. “My Bondage and My Freedom and the American Literary Renaissance of the 1850s.” Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Ed. William L. Andrews. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991. 133-147. Critical Essays on American Literature. Print.
Beeth, Howard. “Review.” Journal of the Early Republic 2.1 (Spring 1982): 93-94. Web. JSTOR. 17 November 2012.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself with Related Documents. 2nd ed. Ed. David W. Blight. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. The Bedford Series in History and Culture. Print.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. Introduction. My Bondage and My Freedom. By Frederick Douglass. 1855. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005. xvii-xli. Print.
Levine, Robert S. “Identity in the Autobiographies.” The Cambridge Companion to Frederick Douglass. Ed. Marice S. Lee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Cambridge Companions to American Studies. Print.
Michener, James A. Forward. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. By Dickson J. Preston. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980. ix-xii. Print.
Nielsen, Cynthia R. “Resistance is Not Futile: Frederick Douglass on Panoptic Plantations and the Un-Making of Docile Bodies and Enslaved Souls.” Philosophy and Literature 35.2 (October 2011): 251-268. Project Muse. Web. 17 November 2012.
Prather, H. Leon. “Review.” The Journal of Negro History 66.3 (Autumn 1981): 273-275. Web. JSTOR. 17 November 2012.
Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980. Print.