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Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself
Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.


Frederick Douglass is one of the most celebrated writers in the African American literary tradition, and his first autobiography is the one of the most widely read North American slave narratives. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was published in 1845, less than seven years after Douglass escaped from slavery. The book was an instant success, selling 4,500 copies in the first four months. Throughout his life, Douglass continued to revise and expand his autobiography, publishing a second version in 1855 as My Bondage and My Freedom. The third version of Douglass' autobiography was published in 1881 as Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and an expanded version of Life and Times was published in 1892. These various retellings of Douglass' story all begin with his birth and childhood, but each new version emphasizes the mutual influence and close correlation of Douglass' life with key events in American history.

Like many slave narratives, Douglass' Narrative is prefaced with endorsements by white abolitionists. In his preface, William Lloyd Garrison pledges that Douglass's Narrative is "essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated" (p. viii). Likewise, Wendell Phillips pledges "the most entire confidence in [Douglass'] truth, candor, and sincerity" (p. xiv). Though Douglass counted Garrison and Phillips as friends, scholars such as Beth A. McCoy have argued that their letters serve as subtle reminders of white power over the black author and his text. Indeed, in all of his subsequent autobiographies, Douglass replaced Garrison and Phillips' endorsements with introductions by prominent black abolitionists and legal scholars.

Douglass begins his Narrative with what he knows about his birth in Tuckahoe, Maryland—or more precisely, what he does not know. "I have no accurate knowledge of my age," Douglass states; nor can he positively identify his father (p. 1). Douglass notes that it was "whispered that my master was my father . . . [but] the means of knowing was withheld from me" (p. 2). He recalls that he was separated from his mother "before I knew her as my mother," and that he saw her only "four or five times in my life" (p. 2). This separation of mothers from children, and lack of knowledge about age and paternity, Douglass explains, was common among slaves: "it is the wish of most masters . . . to keep their slaves thus ignorant" (p. 1).

As a child on the plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd, Douglass witnesses brutal whippings of various slaves—male and female, old and young. But for the most part, he describes his childhood as a typical or representative story, rather than a unique or individual narrative. "[M]y own treatment . . . was very similar to that of the other slave children," he writes (p. 26). The early chapters of his Narrative emphasize the status of slaves and the nature of slavery over his individual experience. "I had no bed," he writes. "[I would] sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in [a sack for carrying corn] and feet out" (p. 27). This description explicitly links Douglass' experience back to that of the other slaves: "old and young, male and female, married and single, drop down side by side, on one common bed,—the cold, damp floor,—each covering himself or herself with their miserable blankets" (p. 10-11).

At age seven, Douglass is sent to work for Hugh Auld, a ship carpenter in Baltimore. "A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation," he remarks, and the progression of Douglass' Narrative illustrates his increased liberty in the city (p. 34). The young Douglass' growing sense of freedom is due in part to his new master's wife, Sophia Auld, who "very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C" (p. 33). However, Hugh soon puts a stop to these reading lessons, warning his wife that learning to read "would forever unfit him to be a slave" (p. 33). Douglass takes this lesson to heart, noting that this incident "only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn" (p. 34). Over the next seven years, Douglass recalls, "I succeeded in learning to read and write . . . [through] various stratagems," including offering bread to hungry white children in exchange for reading lessons.

At age fifteen, Douglass is sent back to Colonel Lloyd's plantation to work for Hugh's brother, Thomas Auld, a ship captain. Here he is once again "made to feel the painful gnawings of hunger," and he begins to resist the tyranny of slavery more forcefully (p. 56). A few months later, Auld hires Douglass out to Edward Covey, a Methodist with a reputation for "breaking" recalcitrant slaves (p. 57). After a difficult year in which he is beaten, runs away, is recaptured, and finally battles Covey in a lengthy fistfight, Douglass is hired out to another landowner, William Freeland, to work as a field hand. Surviving his servitude under Mr. Covey seems to steel Douglass' desire for freedom, as his description of their fistfight reveals: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 65-66).

Douglass does not provide the full details of his escape in his 1845 Narrative, for he fears that this information will prove useful to slave owners seeking to thwart or recapture future runaways. (He later provides an explanation of his escape in both versions of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.) However, in his first autobiography Douglass does reveal that he is able to plan his escape when Hugh Auld allows him to work for wages at a Baltimore shipyard. Upon reaching the North, Douglass describes his sensations as "a moment of the highest excitement I have ever experienced . . . I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions" (p. 107).

By the end of his Narrative, Douglass has resettled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, changed his name (which, until this time, was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), and married Anna Murray, a free black woman to whom he became engaged while still enslaved in Baltimore. In New Bedford, he is introduced to the members of William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass ends his narrative with a beginning, as he recalls his first public address before an audience of abolitionists. "From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren," Douglass writes, leaving the future open for hopeful possibilities (p. 117).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Blassingame, John W., and others, Eds., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series Two, Vol. 1, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999; Douglass, Frederick, Autobiographies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1996; McCoy, Beth A, "Race and the (Para)Textual Condition," PMLA 121:1 (Jan 2006): 156-169.

Patrick E. Horn

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