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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Phillis Wheatley & Early African-American Literature

Phillis Wheatley’s (1753-1784) Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773) is the first book published by an African-American author, and the frontispiece portrait of Wheatley is the only surviving work by the African-American slave artist Scipio Moorhead (born ca. 1750). The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is home to a first edition of the work (, and the University Libraries’ Digital Collections hosts a digital facsimile of the volume that is freely available to view (

As Vincent Carretta explains, “the little girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 somewhere in west Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana, and was then brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on 11 July 1761. A Boston Merchant, John Wheatley, bought the little girl for his wife, Susanna, and they renamed her Phillis Wheatley after vessel that brought her to America.”

Phillis showed great perspicacity, quickly learned English, and received an education in English and Classical literature, history, geography, and Christianity, predominantly under the guidance of the Wheatley’s daughter, Mary. Phillis Wheatley’s poetry shows not only command of imagery and allusion but also a mastery of the Augustan poetic style that was popular in both Britain and America during the eighteenth century. While much of her work was occasional verse, such as her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. 1770,” her most commonly taught and anthologized poem today is “On being brought from Africa to America.”

Wheatley was self-conscious about both her African origin and her position as an American Slave writing within a British literary tradition. This is perhaps best exemplified in her poem “To Mæcenas,” in which she uses her understanding of the Classics to simultaneously situate her own writings in the European tradition and cannily remind her readers that many classical authors such as Terence were, like her, African.  You can read more about Phillis Wheatley’s life and works at  

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

Posted in African American, American literature, Phillis Wheatley, Poetry, Women authors | Leave a comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Corrected Proofs for “The American Scholar”

On 26 January 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal: “Today I send the Oration to press again.” The oration that Emerson refers to was the published text of a speech that he had given at Harvard. On 31 August 1837, Emerson gave one of the most important public talks in the history of American letters. His Phi Beta Kappa Oration, now more commonly referred to as “The American Scholar,” was called by his friend and contemporary, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., as “our intellectual declaration of independence,” and the essay is now commonly assigned in courses on American literature, history, and civic culture.

The oration proved both provocative and popular, and a draft of the speech was quickly sent to press. On 23 September 1838, Emerson’s publisher, James Munroe and Company, wrote to inform him that 500 copies had been published, and on 24 October 1837, Emerson commented in his journal that the edition had sold out within a month. The prospect of having a popular and profitable pamphlet was probably encouragement enough to make plans for a second edition; however, there is compelling evidence that Emerson was displeased with the first printed edition of the speech and used the second edition as an opportunity to make subtle changes and correct errors.

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is home to the page proofs of the second edition, which Emerson marked up for correction and are the only known extant proof sheets of a work by him. Emerson was displeased with the first edition of the oration printed by Munroe, in part because the 1837 edition shows evidence that his work was edited by a type compositor. He was also dissatisfied with the layout and general appearance of the text and submitted a marked-up copy to a different printer, Folsom, Wells, and Thurston of Cambridge, Massachusetts. 515 copies of the second edition were printed and published on 23 February 1838 and announced in the Boston Evening Mercantile Journal, 24 February 1838. They were priced at 20¢ per copy, with a 5¢ publisher’s commission, and 190 copies were still in stock on 17 January 1844, signalling a slowdown of sales after the initial fervor.

The manuscript annotations of the proofs contain over one hundred changes and corrections detailing spacing errors, misaligned text, and the restoration of dropped punctuation and words among other issues. A collation of the proofs against both the 1837 and 1838 editions of the oration reveal over two hundred differences in punctuation and fifteen differences in wording, much of which is evident in the surviving proofs. As a result, we can see that the 1838 text restored Emerson’s preferred rhetorical, grammatical, and orthographic style and is the more authoritative of the two editions; however, in compiling the Collected Works for Harvard University Press, the modern editors rejected most of Emerson’s changes and remained predominantly faithful to the earlier edition. It is only recently, with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Prose, edited by Joel Myerson, that the public has access to Emerson’s preferred version of “The American Scholar.” Now, scholars and students can work with and learn from the material itself.  

The corrected page proofs are the gift of Dr. Joel Myerson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina, and supplement a previous gift of Emerson related manuscripts that Dr. Myerson gave to the University. Many of these manuscripts have been digitized by the University Libraries’ Digital Collections and can be found at: 

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

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In Preparation for Burns’ Day

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is home to the greatest Scottish literature collection outside of Great Britain, and much of this material centers around the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns. Most well-known for works such as “To a Mouse,” “Highland Mary,” “Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” Tan O’Shanter,” and “Auld Lang Syne,” Burns is famous for publishing poetry in Scottish dialect and for compiling and anthologizing Scottish folk tunes. This Thursday is Burns Day, a celebration of the Scottish poet, who was born on 25 January 1759. Originally held as a memoriam, the first supper was held by Burns’ friends on 21 July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death. That same year, the first still extant Burns Club was founded in Greenock by Ayrshire merchants, and in the following year they changed the day of their observance to Burns’ birthday. Since then, Burns suppers have been held on January 25th and have spread across the globe.


Traditional Burns suppers typically include haggis, Scotch whisky, and the recitations of Burns’ poetry. Formal dinners are generally hosted by Burns Clubs or St. Andrews Societies and follow a standard order. Guests are first piped in by a bagpiper, and the host will give a welcoming speech then lead the recitation of the “Selkirk Grace,” a prayer of thanks attributed to Burns.

“Selkirk Grace”
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

The supper begins with a traditional soup, such as Scotch broth, cullen skink, or cock-a-leekie. After the soup course, everyone stands as the haggis is piped into the hall, generally to the tune of “A Man’s a Man for a’ That,” and lead to the host’s table. The host then recites the Burns’ poem, “Address to a Haggis.”




















The recitation is often dramatized by a ritualistic carving of the haggis. At the beginning of the third stanza, which reads “His knife see Rustic-Labour dight,” the speaker draws and sharpens a knife, then at the line “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slight,” he plunges the knife into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end.

After the meal, a guest gives a speech in honor and memory of Burns. Then a man will give a “toast to the lassies.” Historically, this toast was intended to thank the women who cooked the meal, but has since evolved to a humorous commentary on women in the group and in life in general, and if the toaster can manage to quote from Burns’ poems then all the more bragging right for him. However, whatever brave soul chooses to toast the lassies must speak with care, for he is then followed by a reply from the women. The call and response nature of the two toasts are meant to be lighthearted jests that establish a repartee.

Max Beerbohm, “Robert Burns, having set his hand to the plough, looks back at Highland Mary” (1907).

The rest of the evening is filled with general conversation, guests reciting other poems by Burns, and a vote of thanks. The evening is then closed with the entire group joining in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”

“Auld Lang Syne” (Boston: Bradlee, 1834).

So, if you’re in the mood for some good cheer this Thursday, invite some friends, raise a glass, and sing a toast to Robert Burns. 

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

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