In 1845, Douglass wrote his autobiography and called it Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written as antislavery propaganda, this powerful book told of his struggle to gain his freedom, identified his “owner,” and became a national bestseller. It also forced Douglass into exile in England for two years to avoid capture by slave traders. British supporters “purchased” Douglass allowing him to live free in the United States. This assignment requests a “review” of Mr. Douglass’ writing style. Simply stated I call it “miraculous”.
“Keep the black man away from the books, keep us ignorant, and we would always be his slaves!…Come hell or high water–even if it cost me my life–I was determined to be read.”(Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave). Douglass’ writing style, much like his oratory style commands the attention of the reader or listener. What elevates him to “miraculous” is that he achieved this level not through formal education, but rather through his own true grit. That being said, a brief review of his background is warranted.
Frederick Douglass lived from 1817 until 1895. He was a slave in Maryland, and was under the custody of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Auld. Mrs. Auld helped Frederick learn to read, which set the foundation for the person he became. With the ability to read, he began to educate himself, which led to his eventual freedom. Douglass concluded that slavery had a negative effect on both parties involved, and the political system of this country was unjust. Many laws, unjust laws, were passed in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s to prevent the ability of slaves to seek freedom. Douglass wrote an autobiography and avoided being captured for it by speaking on tour in Great Britain and Ireland. Upon returning to the United States, he founded an abolitionist paper publication, for which he was nationally acclaimed, in Rochester, New York. During the Civil War, Douglass somehow convinced Lincoln to further the war effort by releasing slaves, and in 1863, Lincoln gave his famous Emancipation Proclamation. With these and other efforts, Frederick Douglass became the first African American to have an influence in the government, and become a national figure.
At first blush, one looks at Frederick Douglas’ writing and assumes that these are the writings of an educated man of the century. Douglass creates a testament not only to the horrors of slavery but to the power of the human spirit to transcend odds. The Narrative is a compelling document that shows Douglass’ ability to transform himself from an illiterate, oppressed slave to an educated, liberated free man not only literally, by escaping slavery, but also figuratively, in language.
At the time that Douglass wrote his Narrative, most African Americans, especially in the South, had few opportunities to learn to read and write. Douglass earned his freedom by educating himself, and teaching others about his experiences and spreading his knowledge. What struck me most was that this excerpt was written in the first person. This being a personal piece of work, I found myself able to view things just the way the Douglass saw them.
Frederick Douglass’ writing was very ahead of his time. His detail was precise, and extremely descriptive.
For Example: “Mr. Severe was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him 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 mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy. From the rising till the going down of the sun, he was cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the field, in the most frightful manner”
This style made for long sentences, with longer paragraphs. His writing captures the moment he is describing, and paints a picture for the reader. Weather we like it or not, we are forced to imagine these horrendous beatings! We are forced to feel the pain on these women and children! His long paragraphs served a purpose. Although at times it seemed to run on, the ideas were always fluid, flowing smoothly from one to the other. The big paragraphs and long sentencing was crucial to the story Douglass tells so vividly. The descriptive language is necessary in order to paint a picture for the reader. It gives the reader the sense that they are watching things happen. The writing was drawn out into big sections, because the topic at hand is personal, sincere, and of great importance in terms of where it stood in the timeline of the history of this country. The best feature to me is that Douglass does not interrupt himself by flashing back or jumping ahead, as I have noticed in much of today’s writings.
In conclusion, it is due to his miraculous traditional style of writing that Douglass’ writings will remain a fixture in American literature, history and biography. It serves as the best resource to that time period. Simply stated, what better resource than a slave who educated himself to freedom?
Jacobus, Lee A. Frederick Douglass. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.”