Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

    Contributing Editor: James A. Miller

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Readers tend to read Douglass's Narrative sympathetically but casually. Although they readily grasp Douglass's critiques of slavery in broad and general terms, they tend to be less attentive to how the narrative is structured, to Douglass's choices of language and incident, and to the ideological/aesthetic underpinnings of these choices.

    I find it useful to locate Douglass historically within the context of his relationship to the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement. This requires students to pay more attention to the prefatory material by Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison than they normally do. I also try to focus their attention on the rhetoric and narrative point of view that Douglass establishes in the first chapter of his Narrative.

    Questions students often ask include the following:

    How does Frederick Douglass escape?

    How does he learn to write so well?

    Is Douglass "typical" or "exceptional"?

    Why does Anna Murray appear so suddenly at the end of the narrative?

    Where is she earlier?

    What happens to Douglass after the narrative ends?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Paying careful attention to the unfolding of Douglass's consciousness within the context of slavery draws attention to the intersection of personal and historical issues in the Narrative. The movement from slavery to "freedom" is obviously important, as is the particular means by which Douglass achieves his freedom--the role literacy plays in his struggle.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Douglass's command of the formal principles of oratory and rhetoric should be emphasized, as well as his use of the conventions of both sentimental literature and the rhetoric and symbolism of evangelical Christianity. In short, it is important to note how Douglass appropriated the dominant literary styles of mid-nineteenth-century American life to articulate his claims on behalf of African-American humanity.

    Original Audience

    Through a careful examination of Douglass's rhetorical appeals, we try to imagine and re-create Douglass's mid-nineteenth-century audience. We try to contrast that audience to the various audiences, black and white, that constitute the reading public in the late twentieth century.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl --for a contrasting view of slavery through a woman's eyes and experiences. Thoreau's Walden --for a view from one of Douglass's contemporaries. Franklin's Autobiography --for another prototype of American autobiography.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. What is the function of the prefatory material? Why does Douglass add an appendix?

    2. What is the relationship of literacy to Douglass's quest for freedom? Of violence?

    3. What idea of God animates Douglass?

    4. How does Douglass attempt to engage the sympathies of his audience?


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    O'Meally, Robert G. "Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative: The Text Was Meant To Be Preached." In Afro-American Literature: the Reconstruction of Instruction, edited by Robert B. Stepto and Dexter Fisher. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978.

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