Monday, 2 April 2012

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Over the past couple of years I've very much been in to reading a selection of classic twentieth century American fiction, from the likes of Updike, Fitzgerald and Auster. As a result I haven't read much of anything older than that in a while, so this entry is a trip back in time to an earlier example of truly fascinating US literature...

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
Penguin Classics
Frederick Douglass
1845

 "We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder."

I first came across this book about five years ago during my first year of University, during an American Literature study module. My experience consisted of a single chapter (placed in one of those over sized anthology texbooks that cost so much and are used so little), I thought it was fantastically interesting, then promptly forgot about it. Fast-forward to the present day and I found a copy of the full text sitting on the shelf at the charity bookshop in town that I regularly help finance, picking it up to not only finish what I briefly started, but because it seemed like an excellent choice for a book that could make me look intelligent and cultured to anyone who'd spy me reading it, and isn't that what really matters?

In all seriousness though, Narrative is a fascinating book that is as enjoyable as it is an important piece of history. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and for twenty years was owned, used and abused in the state of Maryland, until he finally decided upon the time and method to escape and travel north to freedom. Despite living in captivity, an environment where any type of education for slaves was discouraged with suspicion by their owners, Douglass taught himself to read and write, and so seven years after his successful escape he wrote the story of his life, and in essence much of it is story of the lives of thousands of his kin.

Though Narrative is a very short book (my Penguin Classics version clocks in at 158 pages, including a 30-page introduction), Douglass is able to capture the essence of his storied life with a clearness of prose and drama that is astonishingly good, considering Douglass' limited self-education. Douglass doesn't describe the minutia of his life, instead bringing up specific incidents which helped shape his personality and strengthen his resolve over the years. He also doesn't write much about the personalities of his fellow slaves, but Douglass does tell of the few different owners he had, most of whom are larger-than-life, deathly cruel figures of hate. It's compelling reading, made only more so when considering its place in history. I recommend this book to anyone, such is its power, clearness and historical importance.