Instead of just thinking about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass AS a narrative, it is also important to think about how Douglass's writing is part of a "long conversation" that has been going on among Americans since the beginning of our history. In the course of this "conversation" we have used a variety of texts to debate who we are, what we believe in, what goals we should pursue, and how we should behave. In order to understand the role that Frederick Douglass's writing and speeches played in the national conversation, we should explore answers to some of the questions below.
1) Who is Douglass's audience and what is his purpose in writing? Did he face any particular challenges in addressing that audience on that topic?
Study the text to find passages that allow you to develop and support your response to this question. You may also want to look at the quotes collected on the course web page entitled Frederick Douglass--The Man and the "Character" Created in the Autobiography--as an Argument Against Slavery
You might also want to think about the heated nature of the "conversation" on issues of social reform during the antebellum period. Were people calm or excited when they talked about slavery? How did Douglass deal with this? For background information, see my web page on Mid-Nineteenth Century Concerns Over Rhetoric and Reform
2) Since Douglass wrote about slavery, we need to ask ourselves "What was the nature of the nineteenth century American conversation on the subject of slavery?"
In other words, what kinds of arguments did people make to attack or support slavery? What kind of role do Frederick Douglass's writings play in this conversation; in what ways is he echoing or responding to arguments which have been put forth by others? How do his arguments connect to concerns, beliefs, and values we have encountered in other American works? What "voice" does Douglass use when contributing to this discussion, and why does he choose to express his ideas in that particular voice? If you want to analyze the way Douglass supports or attacks some of the most popular arguments made regarding slavery in his time, you might want to begin by "eavesdropping" on that conversation by reading some of the excerpts you can find below.
Arguments in Support of Slavery
Arguments Against Slavery
Frederick Douglass: Autobiography as Argument
3) Did Douglass's work represent a unique response to the debate over slavery, or is it part of a larger body (or sub-genre) of writing?
Frederick Douglass was not the only former slave to publish the story of his life. In fact, a great many autobiographies of former slaves were published in the antebellum period. If you want to analyze what these stories contribute to the American conversation, then you might want to read some samples from the collections of slave autobiographies listed below.As you read, think about whether there are any elements that reappear in a number of stories, and how those conventions might function as an argument against slavery.
- North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920,
- Slave Narratives,
- Narratives of the Lives of Former Slaves at The University of South Carolina's Documenting the African American Experience Collection,
- and Texts by and About African Americans at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center.
What elements seem common to many of the narratives? Can you offer any explanation for why those elements were typically included in the stories? (What emotions and/or ideas might they provoke in nineteenth century readers?) Is Frederick Douglass's narrative different in any respects? Why do you think his autobiography is the one that becomes part of the American canon?
If you want to go further into these ideas, you might want to look at how the slave narratives agree with or differ from the stories written by plantation owners available at Documenting the American South.
4) How did Douglass use traditional notions of what it means to be an American in order to build a characterization of himself that showed slaves could be real Americans? How did Douglass craft an American "voice" which he could use to participate in the debate?
Begin by thinking once again about how Douglass depicts himself in his writing, and then consider the ways in which other texts written by, for, or about "self-made" men provide a context for understanding Frederick Douglass's representation of his own life and ideas. You'll find the necessary resources at:
Frederick Douglass: Autobiography as Argument
Responses to Frederick Douglass--the Man and the "Character"--as Arguments For and Against Slavery
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography
Nineteenth Century Conduct Books
A Popular Nineteenth Century Book for Boys: The Bobbin Boy or How Nat Got an Education
An organization that sponsors workshops on Douglass for groups of students uses this list of Frederick Douglass' Principles Of Success as a basis for their seminars. Are these principles similar to or different from those that were held by other nineteenth century Americans?
For another way of thinking about how Douglass represents himself as an American, think about the kinds of pictures he uses in his autobiography and the way they parallel the images used in other popular publications. You can find some examples here at the course site on a page dedicated to Douglass's use of American iconography. You can also use pictures and symbols associated with abolitionism (in progress) as a context for considering how Douglass is trying to change the way both sides of the slavery issue perceive African Americans.
5) How did people respond to Douglass and his writing? How did people "use" Frederick Douglass and his texts to advance their own arguments about slavery?
For information on this subject, see: Responses to Frederick Douglass--the Man and the "Character"--as Arguments For and Against Slavery
6) Does the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass contribute only to the American discussion of slavery, or does it contribute to discussion of other issues that have been continuing themes in the long conversation about the American identity? Does the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass contribute to our understanding of the American conversation on any of the issues that will provide the focus for our semester projects?
The Value of Work, the Meaning of the Marketplace
Manners, Morality, and Christianity
Reading, Education, and Self-Cultivation (See The Influence of The Columbian Orator for additional information about the book Douglass used when he taught himself how to read.)
Social Reform, American Perfectionism and Exceptionalism
Gendered “Spheres” and Racial Roles
The Good Death
7) Does Douglass continue to have a value for the conversation on American beliefs, behavior, and identity that continues to take place today?
See: The American Conversation on Race
8) Should Frederick Douglass be included in the American literary canon?
You may find it useful to consult the resources available at The E Pluribus Unum Project: Whose American Canon?
Additional Resources on Douglass and the American Conversation on Slavery
You can find the speeches and publications that helped make Douglass famous at The Douglass Archives of Public Address, at the African American Pamphlets Home Page, and at the Modern English Collection -- Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia.
To learn more about abolitionism, you can visit the African-American Mosaic Exhibition sponsored by the Library of Congress. You can read find pro and anti abolitionist speeches online at The Douglass Archives of Public Address; go to the section arranged by Controversies and Movements.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is a very useful page sponsored by Gonzaga University. It includes a bibliography and links to online versions of texts by Douglass.
A site sponsored by an organization that offers workshop on Frederick Douglass and "performances" of his speeches offers an online edition of Three Speeches from Frederick Douglass: Examples of his Passion, Logic and Power
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