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Is Douglass’s Narrative an
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.
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
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