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Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Feb 5th, 2019

“Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” is a biographical account of the experiences of a former slave in Maryland. The author, Fredrick Douglass was born Fredrick Bailey Circa in Maryland around 1818 as a slave in a big plantation. During his years as a slave, Douglass moved around a lot as his masters kept changing. Eventually, Douglass was able to escape slavery and relocate to New York. In New York, he started a family but his fugitive status prompted him to move further north to Massachusetts.

The author had started to learn how to read and write during his slavery days in Maryland. After he escaped, he continued with his self-education and began his activities with the Abolitionist newspaper, “Liberator”. Soon afterwards, he began giving lectures in meetings that were organized by the Abolitionist Movement. The “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” serves as an account of slavery as well as its interpretation.

Douglass wrote the book amid opposition from people who doubted the authenticity of his account. Most people doubted that a man as eloquent as Douglass had been a slave. The opposition to his accounts soon spread to include slave abolitionists who felt that he should concentrate on the “facts of his story” and abstain from delving into the philosophy behind slavery.

“Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” was written as a response to the author’s critics. Douglass used real people and places’ names to ensure that the authenticity of his book could be proven. The book’s preface also maintains that Douglass is the ‘sole author’ of the book. The book was mostly intended for the stakeholders in the abolitionist movement.

This means both those supporting slavery and those who were against it could have benefited from reading the narrative. The book was very popular after it was published and it prompted the author to start his own abolitionist newspaper and write two more volumes of his narrative. The book’s popularity was occasioned by the author’s ability to tell the slavery story and interpret it even to an opinionated audience.

The book offers a personal account of the author’s time as slave. The author was born into slavery and served various masters until the time he managed to escape at the age of twenty. His account mostly revolved around the treatment he received as a slave. After his escape, a now educated Douglass would often be invited as a speaker in meetings organized by the American Anti-Slavery Society. His eloquence and his stories were very popular with audiences during such meetings.

The book begins by giving an account of the author’s origin. According to the book, the author’s mother was also a slave and his father was probably a white slave master (Douglass 24). Douglass never knew his exact date of birth as slave masters often hid this information from slaves.

The book details how Douglass was separated from his mother soon after he was born. According to him, this practice was meant to vandalize the natural bond between mothers and their children. When the author’s mother died, he was around seven years old and he recalls having no deep emotions about it. However, the author reckons that his childhood slavery experiences were much better compared to those of fellow slaves.

The subsequent chapter in the book starts with a detailed analysis of the structure and the activities of his master’s family. The life at Colonel Lloyd’s plantations was not easy for many slaves. The slaves had to report to a central point where they received their pork, fish, and corn allowances each month. Other than their meager food rations, adult slaves were given clothing once a year, a single blanket, and they had to sleep on the floor.

In the book, slaves often held the ‘great farmhouse’ in high regard and they felt privileged to be sent on an errand at this central house (Douglass 65). The author also addresses the issue of the songs that were sung by slaves while they worked. It was often misconstrued that the slaves sung out of joy while indeed the songs were bitter protests against slavery. In these two chapters, Douglass begins by doing an analysis of the institution of slavery. His insider account is very valuable to his arguments.

The third chapter of this book gives an account of Colonel Lloyd the man who owned Douglass. It starts with an interesting account of how Mr. Lloyd prevented slaves from eating the fruits in his esteemed garden. In another instance, Lloyd sells off a slave after entrapping the slave to give an honest opinion about him (Mr. Lloyd). In the next chapter, the author gives an account of the cruelty of the slave overseers who sometimes killed slaves in cold blood. These two chapters are used to explore the inhumanity of slavery and those who embrace it.

In the next two chapters, the author continues to narrate his personal experiences as a slave including his transfer to Baltimore. According to Douglass, this transfer would contribute to his quest for freedom. His life in the new household was characterized by the kindness of his mistress who even started to teach him how to read and write (Douglass 146).

However, this kindness towards him is terminated by his master and mistress. The author says his thirst for freedom started while he was in the Auld household after the initial exposure to education.

The last chapters in the book are an account of the author’s attempts at gaining freedom. These efforts include him continuing with self-education and a failed escape plot. The book ends with Douglass escaping successfully. He then reunites with Anna Murray and they get married in New York before moving further north. The author uses the book’s appendix to make a few clarifications including his take on religion.

Douglass uses his biography as a testament against slavery. His attempts are successful because of the authenticity of his personal experiences. In addition, his strong narrative and oratory skills are very valuable. As one of the earliest African-American voices against slavery, Douglass’s work serves two purposes.

The first purpose is to open his audience’s eyes against slavery. The second purpose is to act as an articulate argument against slavery by a former slave. Using real names in his book was a good authentication tool for the book even if it compromised the safety of some fellow slaves and those who aided his escape. Sometimes in this book, the author can be seen trying to defend the actions of his characters involuntarily. This can weaken his most sought after authenticity in this book.

“Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” is one of the most significant autobiographies in history. The book is also among the first personal accounts of what slaves went through in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The detailed accounts of slavery experiences in the book serve as a historical reminder of American slavery. The book’s has remained relevant several centuries after it was first published and it is likely to remain so for many years to come.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, New York, NY: Transaction Publishers, 2009. Print.

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