Frederick Douglass & American Autobiography

Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, probably some time in February of 1818, Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) escaped to freedom on 3 September 1838. After his escape, Douglass became involved in the abolitionist movement, began giving public recounts of his life, and quickly became one of the more prominent orators of the movement. He published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845.

Douglass’ Narrative is his best known and most commonly read work. It sold well in the United States, was translated into several languages, and published throughout Europe. In addition to brining Douglass fame, his Narrative also aided in funding the legal purchase of his freedom. There were some, especially in the south, who were initially skeptical of Douglass’ work and his ability to have written it; however, in their public criticism of Douglass they also, unwittingly, verified some of the details of his Narrative, providing an opportunity for Douglass to publicly respond and further validate his life’s story.  

Douglass would revise his autobiography twice more during his life, and these later memoirs would grow to include the many accomplishments of Douglass’ later years. My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) brings the two halves of his life into contrast. While it considerably expands the recount of his life as a slave as reported in the Narrative, Douglass’ second autobiography also details his growing involvement in abolitionism, his travels to Great Britain, his move to Rochester, NY, and the founding of his newspaper, and provides an appendix of his anti-slavery speeches. However, because slavery was still the law of the land in 1855, there were many elements of his life, especially the nature of his escape, that Douglass withheld from publication.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881 / 1892) is a more mature retrospective of an elder statesman. Written well after the Civil War and published just after Reconstruction, Douglass felt it was safe to finally tell the tale of how he escaped. The book also gives accounts of his life during and after the war, his appointment to the Santo Domingo Commission, his various roles in the political life of Washington, D.C, and his involvement with and support of the women’s suffrage movement.

Like the autobiographies that Douglass wrote, the illustrations of later editions of Douglass’ works also change in style, tone, and content. While the engravings of My Bondage and My Freedom are more sensational, the images from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass illustrate Douglass’ post-bellum accomplishments and growing role in politics. Douglass’ autobiographies are quintessential works of American literature, combining elements of previous urtexts from Benjamin Franklin and the The Columbian Orator with the lived reality of racial injustice and the hope of achieving equality and prosperity.  

Michael C. Weisenburg 
Reference & Instruction Librarian
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

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