Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

April 23, 2009

frederick-douglass Some books are revered more for the circumstances under which they are written than for their actual content, and I think the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass falls into this category. There’s not a whole lot of substance to this memoir, nor is there much in the way of philosophy on the pages. But it’s still worth our time because of the fact that it was written by an escaped slave who didn’t have access to the educational opportunities that whites had, yet still somehow learned to read and write, and eventually penned his life story to show others how terrible slavery is.

Plot summary: Douglass begins the narrative from his earliest memories, telling how he was separated from his mother shortly after he was born. He goes on to give some details about his first master, Captain Anthony (who was probably his biological father), and what his life was like on the plantation. Douglass says that he was luckier than other slaves, as he got to work in the house instead of in the fields. But he suffered from the same privations, and had to make do without enough food or clothing all year round.

At the age of seven, Douglass was “given” to the Auld family in Baltimore. Since the woman of the house, Sophia Auld, never had slaves before, she was kinder to Frederick than anyone else had been to that point. She even began to teach him to read — but the lessons had to stop once her husband found out and told her that she was setting off down a dangerous path.

Douglas moves on to a few more masters, including a particularly cruel one named Edward Covey. This man is so brutal that he turns Douglass himself into a brute. While enslaved to Covey, Douglass is quick to get into fistfights, and forgets his desire to learn how to read and write. Once Douglass becomes aware of what’s happening to him, he resolves to try to escape.

It’s not until years later, however, while working for Hugh Auld again, that Douglass manages his escape. He did so by saving money that he earned from ship caulking jobs, and by getting help from abolitionists. He doesn’t spell out exactly how he escaped because he doesn’t want to ruin the chances of other slaves to do the same. Douglass eventually marries, settles in Massachusetts, and becomes a leading member of the abolitionist movement himself.

My Reaction: As I said, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is more about circumstances than content. The actual story of Douglass’s life isn’t exactly a page-turner; the whole reason to read this book is to marvel at how a slave could rise to such levels of prominence as Douglass achieved during his lifetime.

I was surprised that there weren’t more passages devoted to denouncing slavery in this book. I think there was maybe one section where Douglass discourses at some length about the immorality of slavery, but that lasts for maybe three or four pages at the most. Sure, the reader can assume from Douglass’s descriptions of the brutal beatings slaves received that he was wholly against the the practice, but that didn’t have the same impact as laying out a cogent argument.

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It’s a great story of what can be accomplished through sheer determination and perseverance. I actually wish it was longer and went into more details about Douglass’s life! I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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