"The republic of letters": Frederick Douglas, Ireland, and the Irish narratives

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Date: Spring-Summer 2001
Publisher: Irish American Cultural Institute
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,192 words

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ONE of the most notable visitors to Irish shores during the nineteenth century was Frederick Douglass, author, abolitionist, and fugitive slave. (1) Douglass had left the United States following the publication in 1845 of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, in order to avoid recapture and re-enslavement, and to generate support for the antislavery cause in Europe. His travels throughout the then United Kingdom in the two years from 1845 to 1847 had profound effects on Douglass' social and intellectual status. Alan Rice describes him as arriving in "Britain [and Ireland] as raw material of a great black figure; [and leaving] ... in April 1847 the finished independent man, cut from a whole cloth and able to make his own decisions about the strategies and ideologies of the abolitionist movement." (2)

Douglass' personal and political transformation is evident in the shifting form of his literary work, itself enmeshed in those same strategies and ideologies. In Ireland his autobiography was republished by the Dublin Quaker printer Richard Webb shortly after Douglass' arrival in September 1845, and it went into variant and second Irish editions in 1846. (3) Just as Douglass' personal and professional standing were deeply affected by the experience of being outside the US, the reprinting of the Narrative in Ireland marks the beginning of a stage in Douglass' literary career that has profound implications for contemporary readings of his life and work. Taken in conjunction with his other literary output at this time--the letters to Garrison from Britain and Ireland that were subsequently published in the abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator--the Irish Narratives mark a transitional phase in Douglass' emergence as a modern subject and in his negotiation of nineteenth-century models of socio-cultural identity.

For with the republication of the Narrative in Dublin came several and various changes in the form of the work, with often contradictory implications. These changes included the incorporation of a resolution of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society on the flyleaf; varying portraits of Douglass on the title spread; a verse from John Greenleaf Whittier on the title page; and a "preface" written by Douglass and inserted before the preface to the US edition. New appendices included the "Address to the Friends of the Slave"; a reproduction and contestation of A.C.C. Thompson's refutation of Douglass' Narrative in the Delaware Republican; a selection of favorable critical notices from US and British newspapers; and two testimonies from Protestant clergymen in Belfast. All of these changes, most notably the new preface written by Douglass himself, illustrate the strategies he used in negotiating the social, economic, and ideological landscape of the Atlantic world. (4)

The new "preface" first appears in the variant first Irish edition published in March 1846 and, in an extended version, in the second Irish edition of May of the same year. Both editions were produced after Douglass had left Ireland for Britain and was lecturing on his famous "Send Back the Money" campaign against the Free Church of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A80532343