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Instead of feeling relieved upon reaching New York, Douglass is seized with terror. He finds himself in an unfamiliar city, without shelter, food, money, or friends. He is surrounded by people, but afraid to speak with anyone for fear they will turn him in. Soon, though, a free black named David Ruggles takes Douglass in. Ruggles, an abolitionist and journalist, advises Douglass to go to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to find work as a caulker. Douglass writes to his fiancée, Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. Anna soon joins Douglass in New York. Ruggles witnesses their marriage and gives Douglass five dollars and a letter of recommendation.
When Douglass and Anna reach New Bedford, they receive help from Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson, who pay their travel debt and help Douglass choose a new name. Mr. Johnson suggests “Douglass,” the name of a knight in Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.
Douglass is surprised by the wealthy and clean appearance of New Bedford. Douglass has always assumed that Northerners, because they own no slaves, are poor. But the city’s industries appear prosperous, and the workers labor smoothly. Douglass sees no extreme poverty. Even the city’s blacks enjoy good living conditions. They are more politically aware and educated than many Southern slaveholders. Additionally, the Northern blacks take care of one another and guard escaped slaves from recapture.
Douglass works for the next three years in miscellaneous jobs at the docks in New Bedford. After several months, he earns enough money to subscribe to the Liberator, an abolitionist magazine. In August 1841, Douglass attends an antislavery convention in Nantucket and is urged to speak about his experience as a slave. He is nervous about speaking in front of whites, but soon talks with ease. Since that day, Douglass has worked to plead the case against slavery.
Douglass uses the appendix to clarify his position about religion. He contends that there is a great gap between the pure and peaceful Christianity of Christ and the corrupt Christianity of slaveholding America. Douglass articulates his understanding of the hypocrisy of Southern “Christians” who whip slaves, prostitute female slaves, and steal the wages of working slaves while professing Christian values of humility, purity, and virtue. Douglass implies that the Southern church and slaveholders support each other. The church accepts the slave money of slaveholders. Douglass quotes from the Bible, an abolitionist poem, and a parodic version of a Southern hymn to support his argument.
Douglass’s first few days alone in New York represent a new stage in his self-formation. Douglass renders this time as a new sort of trial—a trial of solitude—and his rhetorical treatment of this time reinforces his feelings of isolation. Douglass gives the reader a sense of his circumstances and sentiments at this time, but he also repeatedly insists that no reader can fully sympathize with his feelings without experiencing all of the conditions he himself faced. Douglass’s rhetoric invites the reader to imagine his feelings while forcing the reader to recognize the impossibility of this imagining. The passage thus sets apart Douglass’s first few days in New York as a difficult, individual trial.
When in New Bedford, Douglass’s journey toward self-affirmation is further cemented when he receives his new name from Mr. Johnson. As a slave, Douglass explains, he was given new names and had his original name stripped from him multiple times. The inability to maintain a consistent name as a slave is directly tied to Douglass’s sense of identity, thus, when he gives Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing a new name for him, Douglass acts as his own master. By claiming his new name, Douglass takes a crucial step forward in his sense of emancipation and freedom.
Douglass ends his autobiography with a short appendix that resumes and intensifies his criticisms of hypocritical Southern “Christians” and their corrupted churches who ignore the pure and peaceful Christianity of Jesus Christ. Douglass points out the inherent contradiction of slaveholders who profess Christian values of humility, purity, and virtue, while simultaneously whipping slaves, prostituting female slaves, and stealing the wages of working slaves. In this section Douglass bolsters this critique through his deft display of religious and poetic allusions from the Bible and poetry. In doing so, Douglass exemplifies his ability to not only read but to interpret texts, skills that were prohibited to him as a slave. In performing this act of interpretation, Douglass solidifies his mastery over language and self and asserts his case against the brutality of slavery.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass!