Witness and participant: Frederick Douglass's child

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Date: Autumn 2005
From: Studies in American Fiction(Vol. 33, Issue 2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,118 words

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When William Lloyd Garrison asks readers of Douglass's Narrative--"Reader, are you with the man-stealers in sympathy and purpose, or on the side of their down trodden victims?--he is invoking sentiment's most traditional device to elicit sympathy--that of direct address. (1) And when he introduces Frederick Douglass's Narrative, in particular, by telling the reader that "He who can peruse it without a tearful eye, a heaving breast, an afflicted spirit ... must have a flinty heart," Garrison is preparing us to encounter the Narrative as any sentimental reader would--indeed much as readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin were meant to encounter little Eva's death, after being educated in "feeling right" by such direct questions as "if it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader ... how fast could you walk"? (2) In this last direct question Garrison features what Elizabeth Dillon identifies as "one of the most striking aspects of sentimental discourse"--"the debut of the child as a central figure of literary and popular culture." (3) Ala Alryyes concurs that the rise of the novel was indelibly "intertwined with the child's story," observing that "whereas children are virtually absent from eighteenth-century fiction, they populate every manner of sentimental text in the nineteenth century." (4)

It might initially seem that Douglass focuses on the mother/child bond with which sentiment is concerned only to show its final insufficiency in keeping a human being, as Douglass writes, "from being reduced to the condition of a thing." Indeed, he begins the Narrative by describing how he and his mother "were separated when he was but an infant" as part of a "common custom" to "hinder the development of the child's affection toward its mother and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child" (31). As a result, he never sees his mother "more than four or five times" (32), even though he is required to follow in her condition. The threat that slavery poses to childhood is, of course, a pervasive concern of slave narratives from Our Nig to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And authors like Harriet Wilson and Harriet Jacobs, as Karen Sanchez-Eppler has recently pointed out, figure authorship through childhood--not only by describing their efforts to save their children from slavery or by featuring child protagonists in their narratives but more fundamentally by using the child as a way of inventing a voice and mode of writing that reflects their historical predicament as raced subjects. (5) In so doing, such writers revise the predominant association of blacks with the "child/savage" that, as Ronald Takaki has shown, "defined deviancy and served in effect to discipline whites ... into republican conduct" by representing "what whites thought they were not, and more important--what they must not become." (6) Yet this endeavor to use the child as a way of rescripting the social order is not the exclusive province of sentimental, primarily woman-authored narratives, but also the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A141995714