Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The first of Fredrick Douglass’s autobiographies and as of now, the only one I’ve read.* When this was published Douglass was still a relatively unknown escaped slave, just beginning to break through on the abolitionist speaking circuit. Two things are striking about this little book – first is the clarity and power of Douglass’s writing. He tells the stories of the horrors of his life in slavery with a powerful directness, keeping his humanity in the foreground as he recounts the violence and deprivation of his youth. It’s mind-blowing to think he learned to read and write in secret, largely self-taught, and would go on to have such incredible skill.
The second thing that struck me is how much better Douglass’s writing has held up compared to the writings of the white abolitionist who provide the preface and opening letter (by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, respectively). Garrison, especially, reads like an overwrought Victorian gasbag using four words where one would do. Perhaps he was more learned (and clearly, he was more privileged) than Douglass, but Douglass was by far the better writer.
The more I dig into Douglass the more convinced I am he is one of America’s greatest figures. His life and story are so ubiquitous that it can be easy to avoid his own writers. Trust me, he’s worth digging into and this is a good place to start.
*I plan to read the other two in the coming year and will likely revise this review with comparisons.
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