Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written in 1845, and it stands as a memoir of Douglass’s life. There are a number of characters in the book, as Douglass’s primary goal was to provide a picture of what life was like as a slave during the height of chattel slavery in America. Primarily, though, he writes about his own experiences, and he writes about the experiences in dealing with his slave masters and the other individuals who help the power in society during that pivotal time. Douglass describes the ways in which slave families were torn apart, including his own. Likewise, he describes the difficult relationship between slaves and masters, wherein slaves were required to be in full compliance with the master for fear of punishment. Later, the author describes his move to Baltimore. Eventually he learns to read, and he sees the way in which his self-education troubles his master. He develops an even greater detachment toward slavery when he sees slaves being sold alongside livestock, and when he becomes an adult, he becomes defiant and finally plans his escape. He successfully escapes to the north, which was much easier because of the move to Baltimore.
It is difficult to put words to the historical significance of this book. It ranks as probably the most influential slave narrative of all time, and during the period of slavery, it was a leading book in the abolitionist movement. Because it was published and widely read in contemporary times, it had an impact that was more than just historical. In addition to educating people, it also motivated people to act in eliminating slavery. Today, the significance of this book comes from its ability to show people slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. While slavery is certainly not given good treatment by history books today, they tend to look at slavery from a neutral, third-party perspective. They speak of slavery in factual terms, while Douglass’s book, and the slave narratives like it, speak of slavery in terms of personal experience. This book shows that slavery truly was hell for the people who suffered on it. Likewise, it provides a perspective on the thinking slave. Before the publishing of Douglass’s book, there was a perception that slaves were not capable of thinking at a high level. Douglass shattered this perception, and this helped to win supporters on the side of abolition. Douglass showed, through his words and also his advocacy, that he and other slaves were humans who deserved dignity and respect, just like any white person. This helped to change plenty of minds about the realities of slavery, and its role in motivating action during this movement cannot be understated.
What truly stood out about this book is the honest way in which it spoke about the realities of chattel slavery. In history books, one might read about slave beatings. This book does not talk about slave beatings. Rather, it talks about the pain that each additional lash caused. This adds feeling and a sense of reality to the conversation. Douglass quite obviously had no reason to back down in his writing of this book, and one can tell that he was truly trying to pen a work that would open the eyes of people who might not have previously understood what slavery was all about. I enjoyed being exposed to this kind of harsh reality, even if it did make me incredibly sad for the people who had to endure slavery.
I also enjoyed the psychological back and forth between slaves like Douglass and slave owners who kept him. Douglass was a man who understood that he was a pawn in the middle of a big game. He had to understand how to keep his sense of self-pride while also being benign enough that he could execute his escape plan. This took a tremendous amount of patience and creativity. The book’s content provides a road map for a person who has to walk the delicate balance between maintaining self-worth in a difficult situation and also maintaining the good will of the person who is making the difficult situation happen.
This book stood out, as well, in the ways in which it described the living conditions of slaves. Douglass seemed to understand that his book had to be as much about the institution of slavery as it did about the individuals who carried out his torment. At the end of the day, his individual slave owners were not going to be important to the reader. They were, in effect, more white racists who felt it appropriate to own him. More important to this book was the reporting on the way slaves lived. This spoke to slavery as a whole. The ability of Douglass to see the total picture was an excellent part of this book, and it is what primarily makes this book a valuable contribution to history.
There were few things I did not like about this book. I suppose that I would have liked more information about Douglass’s escape and how it took place. I do understand, however, that Douglass could not have given that information for fear that it would make it more difficult for people to escape in the future. Even understanding that, Douglass’s escape was the pay-off in this book, and the reader naturally wants to know more about how it took place.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of an American Slave. Transaction Publishers, 2009.