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Frederick Douglass and the Development of Slave Narratives

Robert Stepto

    Stepto comments on a "Discourse of distrust": distrust of the American reader and of American acts of reading as a motivation in Afro-American writing. African American writers begin with strategies such as getting readers" told" or "told off" in such a way that the readers don't turn away but do begin to "hear" what the author is saying. In Jacobs (says Frances Smith Foster) this is "reader, be assured that this is no fiction"--NOT an apologia pro vita suae, but a "telling off" or warning. 

    See the bibliography on African American literature for additional readings. Notes here are derived from Stepto, Andrews, Foster, The Cambridge Literary History, and other sources.

Three Phases of the Slave Narrative
    Phase I: Basic narrative (a): An "eclectic narrative" in which authenticating documents and strategies appended to the tale. 
    Phase II: Basic narrative (b): An "integrated narrative--authenticating documents and strategies are integrated into the tale and formally become voices and/or characters in the tale. 
    Phase III. Two Types: 
      a. generic narrative--authenticating documents subsumed by the tale; narrative becomes autobiography 
      b. authenticating narrative: tale subsumed by authenticating strategy; slave narrative authenticating document for other, usually generic texts, novel-history. 
    Note that the authenticating documents for Jacobs are not by white men but by white woman and black man--defying tradition. Amy Post and George Lowther wrote these. 
Douglass's Narrative: Three Versions 
    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
    My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
    The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892)
  • Douglass actually received better treatment; apologized in an 1859 letter to Thomas Auld for making him seem so brutal. 
  • First edition of the narrative (cost 50 cents) sold 30,000 copies in the US and Europe; was translated into French and German. 
  • Douglass broke later with Garrison over many issues, including the founding of Douglass's own paper, the North Star, in 1847. 
  • Douglass resented this, also: "I was generally introduced as a chattel--a thing--a piece of southern property--the chairman assuring the audience that 'it' could speak." He was told to keep "a little of the plantation" in his speech, and to tell his story without elaboration, leaving the philosophy to the white speakers like Garrison, who would then take Douglass as their "text" for commentary. (Cambridge Literary History of the United States 324). 
  • Douglass is not mentioned at all in Spiller's Literary History of U S
Q. How does Douglass's work differ from conventional literary biography?
    1. It breaches the usual contract with the reader by not detailing his escape. 
    2. It uses allegorical names (Severe, Gore). 
    3. The language is not a personalized shaping of experience, but conventional language. Example: The apostrophe to sailboats: antithetical and exclamatory.
    The purpose here is less to recover the language and experience of slavery than to end them. Douglass does not use the vernacular here. 
    "Douglass's narrative tells of taking on the powers of white culture in order to oppose that culture" ("Douglass" connotes blackness in Gaelic). 
Q. Can this be considered a literary document? What kinds of literary features does it possess?
    1. Chiasmus--AB BA: "placing crosswise." Chiasmus is the pattern of a sentence consisting of two main clauses, each modified by a subordinate clause, in which sentence each of the subordinate clauses could apply to each of the main clauses, so that the order of these four members could be altered in several ways without change in the meaning of the whole. Also called antimetabole (criss-cross order using parallel words). 

    Example: "love's fire heats water, water cools not love" from Shakespeare's sonnet 154. This combines parallelism and antithesis. 

    2. Wordplay--puns, not unlike Thoreau's. Douglass takes apart the meaning of a word to get at a deeper meaning, as does Thoreau. 
    3. The creation of himself as "heroic fugitive"--a romantic figure. See the description of the fight with Covey. 
    4. Use of imagery: for example, Douglas draws parallels between himself and the half-broken oxen: "like a wild young working animal"; "valued with beasts of the field". Question: What possible dangers does this approach have for Douglass?
    5. This is a typical American autobiography in that it 

        (1) stands as life of an individual who also 
        (2) embodies guide to life for others and 
        (3) reports the discovery of the self. 

    6. Story in some senses is poised between the whip, instrument of false power that corrupts all who touch it, and the pen, instrument of true power that ennobles all who are able to use it effectively. 
    7. p. 1945 "touching tar" --a metaphor for the entire institution of slavery, and a sort of text for his "sermon" overall. 
    8. Repetition of failed episodes of freedom culminating in actual freedom.
    9. Use of foils, characters, not drawn unidimensionally. 
    10. Devices such as reversal: p. 1953 "What he most dreaded, that I most desired." 
    11. Syncretic phrasing: "My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes." In joining past and present, the pen symbolizes the quest for literacy fulfilled. 

    Comments to D. Campbell