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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
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Old School Classics, Pre-1900 > Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass - Spoilers

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Pink | 6554 comments This is the discussion thread for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, our Old School Classic Group Read for August 2020.

Spoilers allowed here.

Please feel free to discuss anything you wish, relating to the book and let us know what you thought :)


Philina | 1562 comments I‘ve read the first two chapters and totally fell in love with this book. I love how much I‘m learning, I love the style.
The singing slaves will haunt me for a while, I think. So horrible!


Terry | 1730 comments I think the writing is more impactful than some other accounts of slavery, in part, because it is told in the voice of first person, and is therefore quite “personal.”


Nidhi Kumari | 267 comments I am reading this book,it was highly recommended by my GR friends and it tells about slavery in raw details. I don’t think that every book in the world is written for enjoyment , this is one of them.


Terry | 1730 comments I am enjoying this a lot more than I thought I would.


message 6: by Mark (new)

Mark | 12 comments Anybody have an edition with a great forward? That gives a good history, background? I have an old Signet Classic from college, the intro seems outdated.


message 7: by Mark (new)

Mark | 12 comments Okay. Thanks Carrie.


Emily Gartland Here's a great podcast episode talking about Frederick Douglass and the historical context of his autobiography:

https://podcasts.files.bbci.co.uk/b00...

(It's on the In Our Time podcast from June if you want to look it up in a podcast app)


message 9: by Katy, New School Classics (new) - rated it 5 stars

Katy (kathy_h) | 9593 comments Mod
I have read this book several years back; this spring I read Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. This biography provided a wider view of the time period for Douglass.


Philina | 1562 comments Thank you for the podcast, Emily! I‘ve downloaded it on iTunes.


message 11: by Mark (new)

Mark | 12 comments Emily wrote: "Here's a great podcast episode talking about Frederick Douglass and the historical context of his autobiography:

https://podcasts.files.bbci.co.uk/b00...

(It's on the In Our Time podcast fr..."


Oh this is great. Thanks for posting this.


message 12: by Sara, Old School Classics (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sara (phantomswife) | 5676 comments Mod
Wasn't able to access the podcast, but I did finish the book last night and wondered why it took me so long to get to it. What a remarkable experience Douglass had. I had to wonder what gives some men so much bravery beyond others. After the first attempts were unsuccessful to keep trying and make your escape was a feat of extreme courage.

Who could read this and not wonder what evil at the heart of a person would make them want to not only own, but mistreat, another person so. Even Mr. Freeland--ironic name he had and not the only one...we had Mr. Severe in the beginning--who was the best of the "masters" must have seen how wrong he was to engage in this enterprise.

The anecdote regarding his grandmother was the saddest thing in the book to me. I pictured this old woman, after years of service to this family, just being discarded and forced to live and die alone without help from anyone, and, having raised all those children, to have complete isolation as her reward. Brutal.


message 13: by Mark (new)

Mark | 12 comments I listened to the podcast on my morning run today. The whole book is so heartbreaking, then to know that people tried to discredit him when he told his story because he didn’t “look like a slave”, because he was “too smart”. OMG, I was furious. Suffering in slavery AND being called a liar. He was an incredible man to persevere.

If you can’t find the podcast, via the link above, go to The BBC, In Our Time and it’s easy to find.


message 14: by Sara, Old School Classics (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sara (phantomswife) | 5676 comments Mod
Thank you, Mark. That got me there and very interesting indeed. A great companion to our reading. Many thanks to Emily as well.


message 15: by Mark (new)

Mark | 12 comments Thanks Sara. Emily gets all the credit :)


message 16: by Sara, Old School Classics (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sara (phantomswife) | 5676 comments Mod
I really loved the way it fleshed out the years after the end of this narrative. I have it in mind to read his other works now. Also interesting as to how this was received, in that people accused him of embellishing because he didn't "look like" or "dress like" a slave. My goodness, do people never change?


George P. | 572 comments I expected this memoir to be somewhat dry and not too well-written since Douglass was not a professional writer, but I was very pleasantly surprised.
His first person account of growing up as a slave was actually quite riveting. A great book to start with for a reader wanting to know more about slavery in the US.


Terry | 1730 comments George, yes! That was my experience.


Michaela | 680 comments I finished it today, and though I knew something about slavery, it sounded even worse from one who lived this life himself. I found it started with him not knowing his birthday or -year, his father, seldom seeing his mother, not having a real name etc. It´s a wonder he found the strength to endure all this and find his freedom, also working on abolition and women´s suffrage. While all the white men (seldom women) were cruel, he shared his knowledge of reading and writing (which he learned by himself) with others, and he and his friends held together in trying to flee. Impressive book and very well written.


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Sara (phantomswife) | 5676 comments Mod
I agree, Michaela. The first person voice and realization that this is a man telling his own story makes this even more horrifying.


Kathleen | 4015 comments I finally got this today, and will start soon. I've really enjoyed everyone's comments, and I'm prepared to be moved. I think it might be a good pairing with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. (I think this was published in 1845, and Incidents in 1861.) That one was unforgettable.


Thaïs (thaisreads) | 15 comments Sara wrote: "Wasn't able to access the podcast, but I did finish the book last night and wondered why it took me so long to get to it. What a remarkable experience Douglass had. I had to wonder what gives some ..."

Agreed. It's heartbreaking how disposal enslaved people were after all their years of hard work


message 23: by Sara, Old School Classics (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sara (phantomswife) | 5676 comments Mod
Kathleen wrote: "I finally got this today, and will start soon. I've really enjoyed everyone's comments, and I'm prepared to be moved. I think it might be a good pairing with Incidents in the Life of a Slave ..."</i>

I need to read [book:Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
. I'll be interested in knowing how the two compare, Kathleen.



message 24: by Sara, Old School Classics (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sara (phantomswife) | 5676 comments Mod
Thaïs wrote: "Sara wrote: "Wasn't able to access the podcast, but I did finish the book last night and wondered why it took me so long to get to it. What a remarkable experience Douglass had. I had to wonder wha..."

Yes! How sad to be a young person enslaved, but how on earth did these older people hold up after being used up and thrown away.


message 25: by Phil (new) - rated it 5 stars

Phil J | 627 comments Just stopping by to say that this is an all-time favorite.

This book redefined my understanding of slavery, especially the psychological aspects of it. This is one of the few books that I would describe as "life-changing."

One part that I think about over and over is the section in which Douglass describes African-Americans being randomly murdered for no good reason. He goes on to name the killers and their addresses, and dares the government to go arrest them. This entire book calls out the hypocrisy and lawlessness of the slave system.

When Douglass describes the mental state of slavery, it is hard to believe that anyone would ever rise above it. Yet he did, and was able to describe it with an all-encompassing perceptivity.


Michaela | 680 comments That´s something I also admired about Douglass that he rose above this brutal system, and also gave hope to other slaves.


Kathleen | 4015 comments I've said this before in our group reads, but I am so glad this book won the poll. Can't believe I hadn't read it until now!

Like Philina, I am haunted by the singing slaves, and as Sara said, the sending off of his grandmother into the woods really hit me.

The writing was spellbinding. It felt so honest and revealing, and eloquent and rich but at the same time spare. I agree with Sara that I will be looking into his other writing. I expected to be wowed by the substance, but his style blew me away too.

As far as how this compares with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I would say Incidents is a more personal account, whereas Douglass seemed to continuously apply his specific experience to the broader experience of slaves, and the impacts of slavery on society. That, and his special style, made this even more impactful for me.


Aubrey (korrick) | 2606 comments Lots of people on this thread have mentioned either being surprised by this book or wondering how it took so long for them to read it. Definitely things I aim for when nominating works :)


Laurie | 1661 comments I thought Douglass's writing style was so clear and articulate which made an even bigger impression on me since he was essentially self-educated.

I compared his narrative as a household slave and as one allowed to contract out as a laborer in carpentry with the experience of being only a field slave as Solomon Northup recounted in Twelve Years a Slave. Douglass experienced both field work and working in the household. The field slaves definitely experienced far more beatings and generally longer working hours. It is all too horrible to imagine, and I will never read or hear about slaves singing and think of that in the same way again.


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