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Literature and the Love of Words- Some Thoughts on the Book ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’

29 Jan

I’m going to begin by recommending a book which exists as an inspiring homage to the power of the written word. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845 and written by Douglass himself, is an impassioned, real-life account of life as a slave in 1880’s America. Douglass was a freed African-American slave and in the Narrative he uses his greatest skill, the ability to communicate using the written word, to deliver his powerful antislavery discourse.

Douglass himself is an extremely interesting character; he was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland and the book charts his early life until his eventual escape from human bondage using the Underground Railroad. Douglass was by no means the only ex-slave to write an autobiography, but he was unusual in that he penned it himself. In fact, the Narrative was written in order to quell doubts about Douglass’ authenticity, as many people did not believe that an ex-slave could express himself so well.

In the Narrative Douglass recalls how he learns to read and write in secret, and through his newly gained literacy, learns of the abolitionist movement. Douglass credits education with his mental enlightenment and eventual freedom. In fact he continues his theory even further, giving examples of the positive relationship between literacy and freedom, and the negative relationship between slavery and mental degradation, citing slavery’s effects on the white slave owners he encounters. In his review of the Narrative, Thompson succinctly notes that while slavery ‘seems so obviously to be a moral matter turns out on Douglass’ gloss to be an epistemological problem at bottom’ (182).

Douglass was aware that the readership of his autobiography would be white and middle class, people who were largely unaware of the realities of slavery. Douglass reveals himself to be a savvy writer; throughout the Narrative he uses emotive language, which would have undoubtedly shocked the Narrative’s predominately white, middle class readership. ‘My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes’ (Narrative 16).
Douglass wants to rile the reader, to increase support for the abolitionists and the book does not spare an opportunity to shock his readership. Douglass also has a gift for reminding the reader that this is not a work of fiction; it is written by a flesh and blood human, a human who suffered great injustices in the supposed land of the free.

Beyond its value as a tool against anti-slavery, the novel is well-written and a testimony to its authors unquestionable gift as a great writer. Douglass’ achievement of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds cannot be downplayed; he took the great risk of seeking an education at a time when such an act could have ended in his murder. I feel Douglass’ great gift, which shines through the Narrative’s pages, is his ability to question and critically examine the world around him:
‘The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of that same privilege’ (Narrative 1).

From childhood, Douglass incredibly questioned the meaning and reason for his bondage. It is precisely this questioning spirit which allows Douglass to defy slavery and which makes his book so interesting to read. The critic Matlack says of Douglass’ resistant spirit: ‘Douglass had to liberate himself psychologically before he could attempt to become free’ (‘The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass’ 21). And that is exactly what Douglass did; his inquiring mind led him to the truth of his slavery and his means of escape.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass exists today as a solemn yet passionate reminder of the horrors imposed upon African Americans in the form of slavery. The Narrative reminds the reader that with this work, Douglass sought to shape the minds of a nation against the enemy of human compassion and dignity; the enslavement of men and women. His voice, his words and his gift of literacy therefore act as a reminder of the importance of education in the destruction of racial hatred and inequality.

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