Thursday, March 17, 2011

Frederick Douglass, Narrative, Day #1

--Like Rowlandson's captivity narrative, Douglass' slave narrative came to readers with authenticating prefaces by culturally sanctioned authorities who contextualize his work. How do these prefaces work to explain, justify or even belittle (however inadvertently) Douglass' writing?

--Douglass' slave narrative is also an autobiography, an account of his life, and thus can be compared to other such narratives; for this class, we can compare it easily to Franklin's autobiography. Compare the first chapters of both narratives and explore how the condition of slavery affects Douglass' ability to write his life.

--How does Douglass try to capture the reality of the experience of slavery in his writing? What are some of his literary techniques? Compare his arguments against slavery to those we read last class (Walker, Garrison, & Grimke): who does he most resemble?


  1. Mike Flachs

    It is hard to say whether the prefaces to Douglass’ writing work to justify or even belittle it. In fact, I would say that distinction lies in the sentiments of the reader rather than an overall estimation of good or bad. First, there are several ways in which the preface works to justify Douglass’ writing. The prefaces, written by credible abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, work to authorize Douglass’ account as a viable source of reliable information. They also aid in establishing the character (perhaps even moral fiber) of Frederick Douglass, who was a relative unknown at the time. Prefaces by such renowned abolitionists also aid in the visibility of Douglass’ work throughout the North (as opposed to just in Massachusetts). On the other hand, to readers with southern sentiments, the prefaces may work in a negative way. For example, endorsements by such profound abolitionist figures could lead those who already harbor questionable opinions of these men to discredit Douglass’ work as nothing more than another exaggerated (perhaps even fabricated) tool of those wishing to destroy their livelihood. Thus, the individual and how the institution of slavery influences them, decides whether the prefaces aid or discredit Douglass’ work. However, in my own opinion, these prefaces do justify Douglass’ writing.

  2. I think that the way Douglas captures the reality of his experiences in slavery is through honesty. I didn't feel like there was a lot of "pretty writing" or "fluff writing" to Douglas' narrative. He simply told about his experiences. He talked about the things he was afraid of, hated, appreciated, ect in very plain language that made it refreshing to read. It's like he didn't dance around the subject or care about how jazzed up his sentences were. He told his story and only his story.

  3. Throughout his narrative, Douglass captures the reality of the experience of slavery by his use of vivid, memorable recollections. He describes his experiences with immense detail and passion. He discusses in detail about the absence of his mother, along with all other slaves mothers, and how when she died, it had no impact on him. Also, he tells about the yearly clothing that the slaves receive being worth less than seven dollars. Something that really caught my attention was when he says, “Killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community” (2082). Douglass’ strong use of imagery is present throughout the narrative as well. His word choices are perfect in making the reader feel present during his experiences. When he’s talking about witnessing a slave beating for the first time, he says, “It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery” (2074). As a reader, I got a vivid image of entering slavery hell, and the pure agony that awaits those who enter. Regarding the previous class readings, I felt he most resembled William Lloyd Garrison. They both have a subtlety to their assertive arguments, and have an encouraging tone. At one point, Garrison asserts, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD” (1691).

    Emily Miller

  4. The fact that Douglass has these prefaces is very telling about the time in which he published his work, and the pervasive race-related preconceptions held by society at the time. Garrison and Phillips both hail Douglass as a talented and powerful man with an important dream of a liberated America. Garrison calls him, "An Alexandrian library of thought feeling and sentiment," who fights against, "the crime of all crimes,-- man making man the property of his fellow-man." Phillips is also moved by Douglass' account. Both men clearly support Douglass, and the overall the introductions appear to only lend support to Douglass' calling, but closer scrutiny may reveal (unintentional?) racism.

    I might just be reading too far into this, but there is also a slight feeling of condescension in Garrison's letter, in which he writes, "Mr. Douglass has very properly chosen to write his own narrative, in his style, and to the best of his ability"(2067). The last addition to this sentence doesn't sound like the high praise we read earlier. Would he have said this about a white author's "ability"? Does he say this because of the hardships he had to endure to learn to write, because of the "few opportunities [he had] to improve his mind?" It almost implies that Douglass has some kind of disability that makes him less able to write his story. Is it his race that causes this inability or his lack of formal education? This may not have been Garrison's intention, but it certainly feels insulting to me.

    Why include the prefaces at all? Did Douglass think that his work couldn't stand on its own? As Garrison and Phillip state, Douglass is clearly capable of composing this work-- why does Douglass think the reader needs to hear this from these other men? Would leaving out the prefaces have decreased circulation and his audience drastically? Would it have been worth Douglass independently asserting his ability, and right, to authorship?

  5. Douglass' narrative does not seem to try to impose any views upon the audience. I believe he attempts to tell a story of hardships and relies on the reader to understand that slavery is wrong through an instinctive compassion for fellow human beings.

    It is through his autobiographic method that he is able to relate to people of all race, which in itself is a tool to help people understand equality. In this regard it is fairly challenging to relate Douglass' work to the others we have read. The only connection I could really establish is with Grimke. When she wrote, she seemed to urge her readers to take personal change in their lives, rather than to rally upon a cause. Douglass seems to do this, but instead of imposing religion on his readers, he is using a more innate tactic.

  6. Throughout Douglass’s text he really captures the reality of the experience of slavery through extensive imagery and detailed description of emotional events he experienced as a slave. Through passages such as the one on pg. 2097, where he described the slaves saying, “They never knew when they were safe from punishment. They were frequently whipped when least deserving,” he tried to create an emotional connection with the reader. Also passages such as the one of pg. 2076, when Douglass describes Mr. Severe beating a woman in front of her children, the description of the woman bleeding and the children crying really pull at your heart strings.

    These emotional descriptions relate to how Grimke used emotional language such as how she described slavery saying that it, “robs him of all his rights as a human being.” She also places a lot of emphasis on the direct effect that slavery has on every person in a very personal manner.

    There is an interesting different between the two. Grimke places a lot of emphasis on praying in the “#2” section of the selection we read. Douglass on the other hand had a lot of bad things to say about religion. On pg. 2099, he described how Mr. Covey related himself to the “Almighty.” Also on pg. 2106, when Douglass was describing how he believed religious slaveholders are the worst was very interesting. When talking about religious slaveholders he said, “I ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly of all others.” By providing these descriptions I think he is trying to say that just because you practice religion, doesn’t mean you are a good person. Grimke on the other hand seemed to believe that praying and relying on religious help to make people better citizens and more kind was completely necessary.

  7. Douglass tries to capture the reality of the experience of slavery by giving the details of his life in a straightforward and honest manner. Douglass writes about his life with an almost detached attitude. A detached attitude he probably developed and maintained throughout his life in order to shield himself from the hardships of slavery. For example, he talks about how he regarded the death of his mother almost like the death of a stranger. There are times when he talks about the horrors of slavery (like a detailed description of a whipping) but I never felt like he was trying specifically to play to people's emotions. Rather, he wrote about the events as he remembered them and let them stand on their own.

    I believe Douglass' style most resembles Angelina Grimke's. They both writer in a calmer and more reasonable manner than Walker or Garrison. They both tend to state the facts and let them speak for themselves rather than write an impassioned or angry letter. Not to say that Douglass or Grimke do not have passion for their cause. I believe they do. They just go about writing differently than others. Although all four writers are all trying to accomplish the same goal, they just have different ideas and ways of doing it.

    ~Shannon Durington

  8. I found the prefaces more off-putting than enlightening, especially Garrison's. Rather than properly putting Douglas' work into context, he seems to devote his entire preface to preaching how wonderful and inspiring and extraordinary Douglas is. While I certainly do believe that Douglas is deserving of praise and admiration, Garrison just seems to overdo it.

    The picture that Garrison paints of Douglas seems not to be of just a man, but an idol. This, I believe, is counterproductive to Douglas' cause. In writing The Narrative, he wrote and spoke from the mindset of a man, of a human being on the same level as you or I. By doing so, he is reaching out to the audience and then putting them in his own life and making them experience his past life. The key to this technique is ensuring that the audience sees him as a human being, and not just a "negro" or "property". He is trying to put the audience and himself on the same level, and Garrison's praises do the exact opposite by placing Douglas on a pedestal. While I certainly understand why Garrison would hold Douglas in such high esteem, his preface, in my opinion, is very out of place.

    - Josh Milberg

  9. Douglas' narrative is a very descriptive depiction of life as a slave. This detailed account is an an attempt to get the reader/listener to understand the cruelty and unjust treatment of slaves during this time. Douglas has a very hard outer shell, or at least thats how it seems. His hard exterior; which in my opinion is due to his experiences as a slave, make for a very separated account. Douglas' approach is not violent but truthful and calm. He relies on facts and the conscience of those who read his work to get them to stand up against slavery.
    His writing captures the very reality of slavery by giving specific details of the horrific events that went out on. He recalls a time that he witnessed Mr Severe, an overseer "whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mothers release."
    It is hard; even today, to read Douglas' narrative and not cringe at his horrific descriptions, but his narrative served its purpose. It grabbed the attention of its audience and effectively called its readers to action.

  10. I think the effect of the prefaces depends on the audience. I think the idea that it is somehow racist to insert the writings of two white people before a narrative written by a black person in order to "legitimize" it is more of a modern notion. Or rather, the idea that the black person's writing would be co-opted by, and forever remain inferior to, the white person's writing is more of a modern notion. I think being an abolitionist in those days was unpopular and even dangerous, and one had to sincerely believe in the cause in order to undertake it, and thus that William Lloyd Garrison's preface is almost certainly a sincere expression of his excitement and love for this story. He doesn't see himself as a sort of noble white man learning savage culture, but as Douglass' equal. White abolitionists who listened to Garrison in those days would probably have their awareness heightened by such a prologue upon reading this story. Freed slaves or free blacks who read it probably wouldn't need it, because they already know how legitimate Douglass' writing is. It depends on the audience.

  11. in the preface to Douglass' Narrative, William Lloyd Garrison contextualizes the work by retelling the time when Douglass and he met at an abolitionist convention. Garrison wants the reader to realize how slavery affects real people, and writes that Douglass is a figure of grace and intellect, proving wrong the idea of black inferiority. Garrison points out that mental deterioration is an effect of captivity, not inherent in the race itself, which was a very bold statement to make when this was written. He praises Douglass' speech at the convention, and his character, throughout the preface, making it a point to tell the reader that this is Douglass' own work.
    I think this preface is here for a couple reasons, but the main one being a show of support of this work by a white man. He is needed to draw in readers, because he is a voice of authority; if this wasn't there, and it was just Douglass' words, I believe it would loose it's credibility. Garrison is there to assure the reader of Douglass' intelligence, the authenticity of his work, and to show his support for this cause--to give it legitimacy.

  12. While I was reading the preface to this narrative, it definitely felt to me as though the authors were attempting to justify why Douglass should be allowed to publish he work. It reminded me a lot of the justifying that Puritanical women had to do before publishing their works.
    I'm sure that the authors of the preface in no way intended to belittle Douglass's work, but for me that was certainly the effect. I felt as though the authors were trying to sell me on the idea of reading the words of a black man. While this may have been necessary at the time of publication, it seems to weaken Douglass's own words at this juncture in time.

  13. Douglass's narrative of his own life differs quite a bit from Franklin's. Franklin tends to have a more vain approach to his autobiography and thinks highly of himself, suggesting that others should imitate his life, whereas Douglass mostly wrote about the trials he went through as a slave. Though these two subjects are quite opposite one another, I think there was one common link that encouraged both Franklin and Douglass's writing: knowledge. Franklin wrote a lot about the schools he attended in his childhood and his thirst for knowledge, like how he always wanted to be reading books and his father's library wasn't vast enough for him. Douglass began to learn the basics of reading from one of the slaveowner's wives, which he greatly enjoyed. Once he was not allowed to learn from her anymore, he tried to find ways to continue to learn from younger boys. The importance of knowledge was necessary for Franklin and Douglass, but the idea of God was different to the two of them.

    As a Deist, Franklin denied the religion his parents had raised him into, but still debated the idea of a God. Yet Douglass's experiences as a slave made his writing very different from Franklin's. The first part of his narrative details his horrible experiences as a slave. However, Douglass does give contribution to God. For example, when Douglass moves to Baltimore to a much better slaveowner, he writes, "I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this even as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor...This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise" (2085). Douglass's narrative writing was impacted by his struggles as a slave, which led him to praising God.

  14. Douglass captures the reality of the experience of slavery in his narrative by recalling emotional and vivid memories of his time spent in slavery. He is very passionate and descriptive and uses intense imagery to convey his experiences to his readers. He appeals to the readers emotions when he discusses his relationship with his mother, whom he was separated from, as most slaves were. He concludes that this was to break the bond between the. Eventually this is what happens for Douglass and when his mother dies when he is 7 years old, he barely shows emotion. Douglass also talks about his father, who he knows is white and suspects may be his salve owner. During this time many owner raped their females slaves and impregnated them. Douglass said that the owners "profited" from this horrendous act by obtaining a new slave once the child was born. If this wasn't bad enough, these mixed raced slaves were also treated more harshly because the slave owners wives uses despised their existence and used their power to abuse them as reconciliation.

    The descriptions of the abuse that took place during his slavery is what make Douglass' narrative so effective. Douglass described the beating of his Aunt and recalls feeling like both a witness to and a participant in the abuse the first time he ever saw it. He remembers this moment as his introduction into the hellish world of slavery.

    I think Douglass' passion can be related to that of Walker's in our reading from Wednesday. Both men used their writings as call to action. To show the readers the unfairness of this treatment and placing them in the shoes of those who have had to experience it.

  15. Though I believe Garrison's intention to be good, he ends up coming across a little condescending. I think he believes he is a better writer than Douglass and publishing his very common experiences (according to Garrison) isn't necessary. That being said, the preface is certainly necessary because, at the time, Douglass was less prominent than Garrison. The preface would qualify and lend credibility to Douglass's story and draw in more readers.

    I feel that Douglass uses very simple storytelling to relate his experiences. There doesn't seem to be much "fluff" and, though appalling, I find his experiences believable and not exaggerated. His words are intended to show the horrors of slavery, but not to vent his anger as Garrison did. He does not want to create an uprising, just share his story.

  16. Douglas' writing serves as a posterchild to the way Americans continue to pursue black excellence as an uplifter of the American Constitution. The preface speaks to the the setting of Frederick's narrative, while the first chapter opens with an economic description of the south. To introduce the roles of the wealthy white business owners, in my opinion, may've given perspective on the slaves' hardships. In other words, how may Douglas' trials speak to the prosperity of his own master? With the health of the plantations, he describes the bartering of food, and the use of it as currency. Though in chapter III we see the use of cultivated gardens as a luxury of the affluent. The difference in how the land was treated may've introduced a class among land as well. After having discussed Thoreau, Emerson, and those of the Romantic Era, such natural exploitation would greatly rouse a controversy between the local plantation owners, and the public activists.