Maria Diedrich. Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing & Frederick Douglass. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999. 488 pp. $35.00.
Inventing stories about the lives of other people, biographers sometimes find themselves peeping through the keyholes of doors that remain shut to them. They hang their mirrors, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, in odd corners so that they can see what they were never meant to see. To keep such intruders at bay, to retain at least a modicum of control over the ways in which his life and achievements would be represented, Frederick Douglass rewrote his autobiography three times, and he carefully expurgated his papers. Douglass and his heirs, writes Maria Diedrich, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minister, in her provocative new book, seem to have cospired "to conceal and correct history." This, in and of itself, was nothing unusual; many nineteenth-century writers celebrated the "age of newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers," as Henry James dubbed it, by lighting bonfires in their gardens. Henry James himself, of course, burned many of his papers, Henry Adams did, and Mark Twain at least said he did.
Douglass's companion Ottilie Assing, the immigrant half-Jewish journalist from Hamburg. Germany, who knew and loved the ex-slave for more than two decades, also asked that her papers be destroyed. The executor of her will, a young lawyer named Dr. Kudlich, complied, reporting to an anxious Douglass on 18 July 1885 that he had committed to the flames "a large number of carefully preserved packages of letters arranged according to date from the year 1830." But the good Dr. Kudlich had apparently taken a peek before lighting the match: Assing's documents, he noted, as if intending to taunt future biographers, "constituted a treasure in themselves and bore the signatures of eminent men and women and I was reluctant to permit these precious documents to disappear in smoke." Just one fragmentary letter from Douglass to Assing survives, while Douglass's papers contain a mere twenty-eight letters from Assing (edited recently, under the title Radical Passion, by Christoph Lohmann)--nothing when measured against the le ngth of their involvement. One inevitably thinks of Henry James's feisty Tina Bordereau, who, having successfully incinerated the papers of famed poet Jeffrey Aspern, informs his horrified would-be biographer: "It took a long time. There were so many of them."
The story of Assing and Douglass was, declares Diedrich, "begging to be written." Was it...