Frederick Douglass and the
Development of Slave Narratives
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
Three Phases of the Slave
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.
Phase I: Basic narrative (a): An "eclectic
narrative" in which authenticating documents and strategies appended to
Douglass's Narrative: Three Versions
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
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.
b. authenticating narrative: tale subsumed
by authenticating strategy; slave narrative authenticating document for
other, usually generic texts, novel-history.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Q. How does Douglass's work differ from conventional
My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
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
Douglass broke later with Garrison over many
issues, including the founding of Douglass's own paper, the North Star,
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.
1. It breaches the usual contract with the
reader by not detailing his escape.
Q. Can this be considered a literary document?
What kinds of literary features does it possess?
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
"Douglass's narrative tells of taking on
the powers of white culture in order to oppose that culture" ("Douglass"
connotes blackness in Gaelic).
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
Example: "love's fire heats water, water cools
not love" from Shakespeare's sonnet 154. This combines parallelism and
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
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.