Is Douglass’s Narrative an autobiography?
An autobiography is a biography of a person written by that person, and it conventionally depicts a process of personal development. Douglass’s Narrative is strictly an autobiography at certain points, but it exhibits conventions of other narrative genres as well. For example, at times Douglass intends his life story to stand as the life story of all slaves, or of a typical slave. When in his first paragraph Douglass tells us that he does not know his birth year, he implies that this personal information is important on a public level, an indication of how all slaves are treated by their masters. Douglass understands, though, that he cannot simply argue that the events of his life represent the experience of all slaves. Therefore, Douglass includes many stories from the lives of other slaves whom he knew and stories that he heard secondhand. Accordingly, the Narrative often skips around, rather than progressing in detailed chronological order. In these sections, Douglass’s Narrative resembles not so much an autobiography as a memoir, a genre that focuses on the people or events that the autobiographer has known, or a picaresque novel, in which the various scenes reported are held together by the fact that they one character witnesses them.
Perhaps more than anything else, Douglass’s Narrative drops the conventions of autobiography in favor of the conventions of political or philosophical treatise. Douglass frequently cites a situation and then analyzes it at length to support a point about the treatment of slaves or about the institution of slavery. Douglass’s apparent use of rhetorical styles reinforces the treatise‑like quality of the Narrative, as some sections strongly resemble persuasive oratory. The Narrative does fit the conventions of autobiography at certain points, most notably during the stories of Douglass’s self‑education and escape to freedom. Yet it seems that the Narrative is intended not so much to chronicle Douglass’s own coming‑of‑age as to persuade readers that slavery is politically and philosophically wrong.
What function do Garrison’s preface and Phillips’s letter serve?
Garrison and Phillips both provide corroborating testimony that Douglass is indeed a fugitive slave and the author of the Narrative. Phillips, in particular, stresses the importance of this authenticity when he implies that the powerful sometimes misrepresent the powerless. Phillips alludes to the fact that most of the information Northerners have about slavery comes from slave owners rather than the slaves themselves. This selective, biased information can present a misleading picture of slavery as a benevolent institution rather than a horrendous practice. Phillips suggests that the authenticity of Douglass’s Narrative is important because Douglass can present a rare picture of slavery as it actually is.
Garrison’s and Phillips’s documents also try to prepare white readers for the text, or to make the text seem comfortable and familiar to readers. Phillips’s friendly letter to Douglass presents Douglass as a known entity to readers, introducing him as a character and narrator. Phillips uses his own reputation and name to put Douglass on a more intimate level with readers. Garrison and Phillips also prepare readers for Douglass’s text by presenting Douglass’s story in the context of the American Revolutionaries. Garrison compares Douglass’s quest for freedom from slavery to Patrick Henry’s demand for liberty from British tyranny. Phillips, too, compares Douglass to a courageous revolutionary because Douglass takes brave chances by publishing the details of his past at a time when he can still be recaptured. By implying that Douglass’s struggle for freedom is similar to the Revolutionaries’ fight, Garrison and Phillips make Douglass’s text seem more familiar to readers.
Finally, Garrison and Phillips both connect Douglass’s story to their own political fight for abolition. Garrison recognizes that Douglass exhibits extraordinary talent that separates him from many of his fellow slaves. However, Garrision also treats Douglass as though he is representative of all slaves. Garrison and Phillips both present Douglass as a successful example of a freed slave, Garrison suggesting that all slaves should be similarly freed. Both writers use their documents as persuasive arguments against slavery. They intend that readers should commit to the cause of freeing slaves. In taking this focus, Garrison and Phillips situate Douglass’s Narrative not as a private account of individual growth, but as a public record of the injustice of slavery.
How does Douglass show that slavery corrupts slave owners?
Douglass shows that slave owners constantly deny the humanity of their slaves in order to justify their ownership of human beings. To convince themselves that their slaves are not quite human, slave owners treat them inhumanely. In treating his slaves like beasts, however, the master becomes a beast himself. He often becomes piously religious so as not to see himself as a brutal, depraved wretch. But he must pervert the Bible to justify owning slaves.
Douglass depicts the negative effects of slaveholding on slaveholders through the characters of Thomas Auld and Edward Covey. Douglass shows that both these men must pretend that they are one thing while they are really another. Thomas Auld attempts to act the part of the privileged, powerful slave owner. Both the slaves and Auld himself recognize that he is only acting, and he becomes even more tortured and cruel because of his unconvincing performance. Edward Covey pretends to himself, and to God, that he is a Christian man—righteous and pious. Douglass presents both of these men as somewhat silly and pitiable in their falseness, pointing to the psychological difficulty of performing unnaturally. Slavery, because it is unnatural, has forced this difficulty upon the men who own slaves.
Sophia Auld is another example Douglass presents to depict the damaging effects of slavery on the slaveholder, as we witness Sophia’s transformation from virtuous woman to corrupt slave-owner. Douglass is the first slave Sophia ever owns. Before slavery corrupts her good character, she is a kind, affectionate woman. She initially treats Douglass like a human being, discouraging his servility and educating him. But when her husband informs her that education would ruin Douglass as a slave, she begins to treat Douglass like property. Slaveholding, then, turns Sophia’s kind, generous character harsh and cruel.
1. What role do women play in Douglass’s Narrative? Pay close attention to when or if female characters speak, to how female characters relate to Douglass, and to the depiction of women in relation to virtue.
2. Analyze Douglass’s treatment of Christianity in the Narrative. Why does he include his “Appendix”?
3. How does Douglass describe New Bedford, Massachusetts? How does this description undermine economic arguments in favor of slavery?
4. Think about Douglass’s private speech to the ships in Chapter X. Why does Douglass recreate this speech in his Narrative? What do the ships represent? Why is this moment important within the Narrative?
5. Analyze the various references to American Revolutionaries in Douglass’s Narrative. How does Douglass’s use of these references differ from Garrison’s and Phillips’s? Why is the phrase “An American Slave” included in Douglass’s title?