How does one write the life story of a person who demonstrated his greatness through writing his own life story? Namely, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)," which he composed at age 27 and which “made him in time the most famous black person in the world.” Douglass followed up with the revised and extended autobiographies "My Bondage and My Freedom" (1855) and "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881/1892)."
It’s hard to imagine a biographer more knowledgeable about Douglass’s life, times and writings than David W. Blight, who indeed knows so very much that one of his occasional turns to the reader is to pose a series of non-rhetorical questions: “One can only guess at how Anna [Douglass’s wife] coped, binding shoes and nursing children in Lynn. How many sharp-tongued rebukes did she give her husband, or were they simply long sighs, as he told her a day or so after arriving at home that he would be in Worcester or Providence or some other town for the next several days? Or did he tell her his itineraries at all?”
That is, no one knows the answers to these important but now irretrievable questions. If someone knew, Blight would know.
This grand and timely biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, is ever authoritatively informative, but it travels at a safe and steady 25 m.p.h. on a straight road while Douglass’s life was often a dangerous and boundless adventure. Where Blight is best is investigating those topics where the usually intrepid Douglass hesitated to tread:
“Douglass invited us into his life over and over, and it is a rich literary and historical feast to read the music of Douglass’s words. But as he sits majestically at the head of the table, it is as if he slips out of the room right when we so wish to know more – anything – about his more private thoughts, motivations, and memories about the many conflicts in his personal life.” In those mysterious spaces, Blight is the best guide we could ask for, even though he sometimes seems sorry to have to mention his and our hero’s clay feet: “Just where Douglass’s whole heart could ever rest, and just how he might ever find balance between the public and the private demands of his chosen paths, emerged now as the defining feature of his life.”
Essentially motherless (“My poor mother,” Douglass wrote, “like many other slave women, had many children, but NO FAMILY!”), and frustratingly fatherless (he never was able to discover which of the white men on the plantation in Maryland where he was born was his father), Douglass valued family and was an okay father himself to five children (one daughter died young), a surprisingly engaging grandfather, but something of a half-hearted husband. His patient and loving wife Anna, herself freeborn of slave parents and who helped Douglass escape North on the underground railroad in 1838, was illiterate.
Douglass seems to have confided less to her than to his “helpers,” a series of literary women who helped him in the management of his newspapers: “It was as though Douglass had a conjugal and a companionate mate, and they were not the same person. Exactly how he justified or explained this to himself, or to Anna, he never tells us. One woman provided him a home and a family; the other helped him forge his professional life and calling. He loved both.”
Douglass was a sensational lecturer, and his addresses and speeches remain riveting and surprisingly relevant in the 21st century. But like other famous performers and political activists, he seems to have been on the road, away from the comforts and demands of home, several months a year for the last five decades of his energetic life.
His bold and distinctive American voice has an incisiveness of a sort that we can all envy and be proud of: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? … There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
Douglass’s only rival as the greatest public figure in American history seems to me to be Abraham Lincoln. The President invited Douglass to the White House in the midst of the Civil War despite Douglass’s public criticism of Lincoln’s cautious delays in regard to emancipation: “… a lifetime of making himself into a character now blossomed because Douglass had found the ultimate counterpart actor – at least in the power the other character represented. Douglass had finally made it to the inner sanctum of American power, to the headquarters where this apocalyptic war was conducted, to ‘the head
man,’ as he put it, ‘of a great nation.’” Through face-to-face meetings, the two men learned from and gained respect for each other.
Douglass spent the three decades after the Civil War advocating for equal rights, not only for black men but for all women: “He would always be delighted to be called ‘a women’s rights man.’” After Anna died in 1882, Douglass married an assistant to him at the Washington, D.C., recorder’s office: “… there hadnever been such an open interracial marriage by such a famous and important black man.” Douglass, as usual, responded to the racist outrage with dignity and directness.
Blight quotes Douglass regularly and aptly, but ought to have quoted him even more and at greater length. Rather than humming Mozart’s tune, I keep thinking, just play it! Douglass’s writing voice is always available, and even if one argues that his speeches, for example, wouldn’t always move the narrative of his life along, it is always the thunder and lightning of his voice that make us want to know him, the man with the voice, better. “His work and his words
still wear well,” Blight justly concludes.
Read, I suggest, as the earnest biographer perhaps expects us to have already done, at least "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself," and then stock up on the helpful context of Blight’s thorough biography.
With Christine Rudisel, Bob Blaisdell edited "Slave Narratives of the Underground Railroad."