David W. Blight
Prophet of freedom
912pp. Simon and Schuster. 30[pounds sterling] (US $37.50).
978 1 4165 9031 6
It is an irony of US history that the most photographed and heard American of the nineteenth century, according to his latest biographer David W. Blight, was the former slave and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Today his fame is widespread enough for the historically challenged Donald Trump to commend him for "doing a good job". Blight, a professor at Yale University and distinguished historian of abolition and the Civil War, has written a deeply sympathetic biography of this extraordinary African American leader that brings to life his magnificent oratory. The author of a brilliant intellectual history, Frederick Douglass' Civil War (1989), and accomplished editor of Douglass's first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Blight has lived with his subject for decades, and his mastery of all things Douglass is evident on each page.
Douglass himself was aware of the power of his remarkable life story, his ascent from fugitive slave to statesman. His slave narrative became, the literary scholar William Andrews has noted, "the great enabling text" of early African American autobiography, as many former slaves put pen to paper after the runaway success of Douglass's book (pun intended). As Blight puts it, Douglass's "great indictment of slavery came first and foremost from the accumulated injury of his own story". Slave narratives comprised some of the most popular literature of their day and were the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's international bestselling anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The power of black autobiographical writing has persisted in our times, as we have seen in the global success of Michelle Obama's Becoming (reviewed in the TLS, February 8). Blight adeptly leans on the self-image Douglass sought to construct in the three iterations of his autobiography, his numerous speeches and editorials, writing what he calls "the biography of a voice". He also sheds light on Douglass's controversial personal life.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (Douglass renamed himself in freedom) was born a slave on the eastern shore of the border Southern state, Maryland, in 1818. Douglass himself was uncertain of both his date of birth and the identity of his white father. His most vivid memory of his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey, was her miles-long journey to see him at night for a few hours: she would then slip away in order to be back in time for work as a field hand at a neighbouring plantation before daybreak. Douglass's enslaved grandmother, Betsy Bailey, looked after him before he was deposited at the doorstep of his master's house at the age of seven. Such was the genealogy of America's most famous black man of the nineteenth century, enslaved as were more than 90 per cent of the African American population before the Civil War.
Douglass experienced Southern slavery in all its varieties, rural and urban, as an abused field hand and a favoured house slave. His lucky break came when he...