Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself — the latest book I’ve read for my 100 books challenge — is a fairly quick read and an important book from a historical perspective.

Published in 1845, the Narrative was the first of three Douglass autobiographies. The other two are My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

Interestingly, when Douglass first wrote and published his Narrative, he was still a fugitive slave, although he was living in the free state of Massachusetts at the time. In telling his story, Douglass explicitly names several plantation overseers and describes in great detail excessive physical abuse they exacted on their slaves — a few even going as far as murder. While reading, I kept trying to fathom the great risk Douglass took in coming public and sharing these stories, and wondering what would have happened if he had been captured by his master at that time.

The Narrative became an instant best-seller upon publication, especially amongst abolitionists who also used it as a propoganda piece. Upon publication, Douglass went on a ‘world tour’ to parts of the Caribbean islands, Ireland and England — likely in part to evade capture. Once in England, a group of abolitionists purchased his freedom for $711.

The Bedford series edition that I read — linked above with cover image also shown — contains an introduction and extensive footnoted commentary by David Blight, several book reviews that came out shortly after publication (including one by noted transcendalist Margaret Fuller), and a transcript of Douglass’ fiery 1952 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

There’s also a chronology of Douglass’ life, which made me want to read his latter two autobiographies as well, although Narrative is his most famous. I admit that prior to reading this book I knew very little about Douglass’ life, and I found it interesting to learn that he served in appointed positions in three different U.S. presidential administrations and that his second wife was a well-to-do white woman, which caused much controversy at the time.

The Narrative itself is short at around 85 pages, including an Appendix where he posits the hypocrisy of American Christianity, while he himself was quite a religious man and wrote “I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (page 120). In some respects, it reminded me of Gandhi’s message 100 years later.

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