Tyler 's Reviews > Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
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's review
May 13, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction
Recommended for: History and Biography fans
Read in February, 2007

The book best suits history buffs and fans of biographies. The writing itself, while clearly that of an educated man with a point of view to put forth, also brings into the narrative the issues of alcohol and women's rights. Bringing up these issues tends to distract from the main theme, the evils of slavery. Also, the style is too emotionally forceful, where a little bit of subtlety would have illustrated the point better. The mention of earning one's own way would strike modern readers as a plug for a capitalism that didn't yet exist. Other people's agendas tend to peek out from the pages of the story.

Nevertheless, it's history in its own right. The comparison between Baltimore and Connecticut is especially good. I look forward to reading Douglass's later works after reading this one.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Melanee With all due respect, how would a 28 year old man who has endured the horror of slavery possibly speak with subtlety and not emotional force? This narrative has nothing to do with style or intellectualizing, and everything to do with heart.

message 2: by Tyler (last edited Oct 05, 2008 04:43PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Tyler how would a 28 year old man who has endured the horror of slavery possibly speak with subtlety and not emotional force?

By editing the narrative differently. Who the editor was makes a crucial difference in how the story comes across.

Your question brings up a deeper one -- why should such a narrative be toned down in the first place? To me, the reason has to do with who the book was trying to reach.

As written, the book affirms what people in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society already well knew. But as an argument against slavery, this isn't the most important group the book needed to address. The people who needed to be reached were Northerners who were sitting on the fence about the issue of slavery.

The purpose of the book, then, is to change minds. For this, a subtle -- really, a softer -- approach would have worked best. The overflow of adjectives, as with "cruel whip," should have been pruned in many cases (to just "whip"). Undecided readers of an anti-slavery book may easily have been turned off by an importunate style which they perceived as forcing them to think a certain way.

By relating the story in a more matter-of-fact tone, the book would have left these people to draw their own conclusions. They would thus supply their own adjectives to the (already horrendous) story they were reading, thereby convincing themselves and buying in to the anti-slavery message.

The writing style of the early 19th century was full of highly emotive, passionate prose. But for the kind of task this book had before it, I think less would have been more.

I hope to read Douglass's second book next year. It was written ten years after this one, and it'll be interesting to see how his style evolves during that time.

Melanee Fantastic and well reasoned rebuttal. Indeed, the potential for influence upon the Northern fence sitters may well have been greater had this narrative allowed the reader to supply his own conscience between the lines. Our modern politicians and various media outlets would do well to consider the same.

message 4: by Jane (new)

Jane I don’t have a disagreement if you like or don’t like this narrative, but your review and comment is based on mistaken history. You presume that the only/chief purpose of this book was to change minds, so it therefore should have been softer in tone. But: (1) for Douglass and other freed slaves, telling their stories -- being counted as a literary person with a story -- was a key humanizing act of a free person. To affirm their humanity in this way served a very important purpose for them. (2) While *you* may not have found the tone “persuasive,” sentimentality/melodrama were the common literary styles of the period. Case in point: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most persuasive books ever written. (See David Reynolds’ recent work on that.) Also, antebellum capitalism definitely existed, and was growing particularly in the Northeast, and the theme of individualism is one that has taken off since Locke, Hobbes, the French Revolution, Jefferson … It’s not out of place, as you suggest.

Michael I find this review baffling. Here we have an autobiography that passionately and eloquently recounts the author’s experience as a slave and his courageous escape. Why review the book negatively because you believe (correctly or erroneously) that the forceful prose may have offended someone from the pre-Civil-War era who was undecided as to whether slavery was good or bad? It makes about as much sense as dinging the Diary of Anne Frank because it you think it wouldn’t be received well by holocaust deniers. Why not just rate the book on its literary merits?

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