Friday, April 5, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

With great enthusiasm, I signed up for four challenges this year, but I’ve been dragging my feet on two of them. For some reason, I’ve been slow to start the Back-to-the-Classics challenge and the TBR-pile challenge, even though I’ve chosen books that I want to read. This past week was spring break, and we had a family vacation planned, so the only books I brought along were books from those reading lists. I finished two and started one. Here’s the first:

For my "Classic that relates to the African-American Experience" I chose Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written, of course by Frederick Douglass, although at the time of its publication (1845), detractors attempted to say that the book was too well-written to have been composed by a self-taught slave.


Actually, I read the Penguin Classics edition, not this one
It’s a compact narrative that relates the story of Douglass’s life as a slave from childhood until his escape. Douglass's situation changed a few times. He was primarily a city-dwelling slave, in Baltimore, although he briefly was sent to work in the fields. His explanations of how slavery lowers both slave and master are insightful and sad. An eye-witness account, it's a convincingly wrenching condemnation of slavery. The beatings, humiliation, tearing apart of families, the sexual brutality– it’s all there, laid out in straightforward, matter-of-fact prose that is somehow more horrifying with its lack of sensationalism.

Much of this narrative and Douglass’s personal philosophy does not seem particularly new, but I think that’s because so much of it has been incorporated into what we now know about slavery and how we view it. I can see how it would have been a revelation when it was published, at a time when many still tried to turn a blind eye to slavery’s evils or to pretend that many slave owners weren’t really that bad–as if there could be gradations of something so wrong.

One thing that surprised me, and brought home to me even further the reality of Douglass’s position, was the abruptness of his "escape narrative." There is none. He decides that he must run away. He makes his plan, but doesn’t give much detail beyond the fact that he is storing up the little bit of money he can get his hands on and lulling his owner into a false sense of security. And then, he is in New York. All he tells us is that the escape proceeded smoothly. He does not explain how he did it or mention who helped him because he doesn’t want to close the door behind him, cutting off the route for those who might follow. Also, telling what happened would be dangerous for those left behind. And, dangerous for him. He could still be caught and returned to his owners in Baltimore. For me, used to stories where the tension of the slave escape is a large part of the tale, for a moment, I felt like a chunk of the story was missing. But then I remembered that he was publishing this in 1845–in the midst of an ongoing fight. His own narrative was not yet completed. Douglass, and his book, still had a large role to play.

 
The Back-to-the-Classics Challenge 2013 is hosted by Sarah Reads too Much.