Troubles of Biographers: D is for Daring Douglass

In the previous post, I ask the question, So when is an autobiography/biography, even one about documented horrific events, not a modern survivor memoir? 

My answer: When it is written for a definite purpose by a genius with a passion for clear writing or about said genius by someone with a passion for clear writing. 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life in Autobiographies. Library of America, 1994, pp. 1-102.

Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Simon & Schuster,  2018, pp. 1-155.

The most initially striking aspect of Douglass' Narrative is its lyrical tone of objectivity. The opening pages present the sense or image of a child watching, watching, watching. Douglass relates moments of his youth, specifically of brutality on the Lloyd plantation, with nearly forensic detail. Blight argues that Douglass was well-aware that his description of these events would be questioned though "almost all the basics...can be verified." They couldn't at the time due to the state of slavery itself. Douglass employs his remarkable memory to a purpose, to recall as accurately as possible events of his time in slavery. 

His objectivity extends to a masterful summation of the personalities around him. He delivers at one point a breakdown of an overseer's character that indicates a natural understanding of human psychology. Every person, from friends to masters, is an individual to be studied. 

Douglass also shows a remarkable ability to delineate the complexity of relationships between masters and slaves, which often sound dysfunctionally parental (and were literally parental in some cases). When Douglass went to Baltimore, he was cared for by a woman who had never owned slaves before. Her initial natural instinct to treat him as any child in her care gave way to the exigencies of the slave-master relationship, resulting in a different attitude. "Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me," states the young adult Frederick Douglass in an awe-inspiring and merciful comprehension of complex human behavior (40). 

I should note--as many modern people do (some in support, some not)--that the most injurious quality of slavery to Douglass is its literal control, not its abstract meaning. Douglass had plenty of actual aggressions to deal with, namely (in Baltimore) his master taking away the money that he earned.

In a fascinating passage in Narrative, Douglass compares
what he believed about the North based on Southern
claims to the experienced reality of New Bedford. 
The objective, self-analytical voice is operating full-force.
Douglass focuses as much, if not more, on his rise out of slavery. As Blight points out, Douglass refashioned his narrative many times--without the essentials being lost--as he tried to discover who he was absent a dictator's label. Certain elements remained stable. One, quite touchingly, is that although Douglass fashioned himself to a degree as a self-made man, he allowed for an element of luck or chance or Providence: 
From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me though the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise. (36)

Douglass places the greatest emphasis on learning to read. His mistress in Baltimore began to teach him, then stopped at the command of her husband. Yet from the husband's  argument--he connected slavery to ignorance--Douglass learned the importance of the skill and set out to master it.

Douglass also credits the friendship of mostly Irish boys in Baltimore whom he encountered during his time there. He remembered them throughout his life. They easily befriended Douglass and found the state of slavery obnoxious by default. In one of the most delightful passages in his biography, Blight declares, "[The boys'] words convinced [Douglass] that young boys were natural abolitionists" (42). 

It is not that the darkness--the cruelties of the past and lingering fears and present unfairnesses--departs. Douglass's principal aim in Narrative is to propound the wrongness of slavery. As Blight points out, Douglass knew how to make slavery's horrors relatable to an audience that had never experienced  or seen them directly. Douglass focused on family and demonstrated a willingness to let the reader gaze on someone other than himself (Blight argues otherwise, feeling that Douglass always takes center-stage--but my comparison here is to survivor memoirs not biographies). At one point, he eulogizes his grandmother, painting a picture of abandonment and rejection despite her hard work and sacrifices. 

Neither Douglass nor Blight allow us to forget that however comparatively better Douglass's life was in Baltimore, he did not have the basic freedoms that would allow him to easily unleash his great intelligence, perception, energy, and resolve (the fact, for instance, that he had to be returned "home" for valuation when his master died). Yet the portrayal--that Blight in a very modern way often tries to temper with context--of a great man climbing after the light of freedom pervades Douglass's autobiography. 

He also, as Blight acknowledges, utilizes caustic wit and sharp humor to strong effect. At the end of Narrative, Douglass rushes to assure his readers that he is not opposed to Christianity. He wasn't. But his claim is almost immediately challenged as he unleashes "A Parody" of Southern and Northern ministers who supported slavery. The poem is savage, pointed, blistering.

The tone is the furthest thing from angsty. When Douglass states that in comparison to the "corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land," he loves the "pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ" (97, my emphasis), one believes that he truly welcomes and endorses impartiality as a positive virtue.   

This is a true survivor memoir--not the type referenced in the previous post. The child grew into a man whose anger took the form of forceful and passionate rhetoric. One also believes that through the man's writing and public presentations, that youth is still watching, watching, watching. 

Douglass is naturally worth reading. Even by modern standards, his nineteenth century beautiful prose is fresh and straightforward. I also recommend Blight. The biography flows easily; I found the first 150 pages a remarkably fast read. Blight has the gift of keeping his biography moving forward with new material without getting bogged down by too much detail. He also avoids the mind-numbing and irritating tendency for biographers to simply restate everything the biographee already wrote. Blight is offering context, perspective, analysis, and verification. He offers this new material without overwhelming the tale itself.  

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