Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Three questions came to mind as I read this book: (1) Is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass a “great book”? (2) What would Douglass think of circumstances today? and (3) Do some issues trump our constitution and our laws? The answer to the first question depends on your definition of what makes a book great. This book is certainly a moving account of one man’s triumph over tremendous adversity and injustice. And it certainly gives a vivid portrayal of social conditions in the South prior to the Civil War. What is less certain is to what extent this book is history, and to what extent it is autobiography. Autobiography is by its very nature a highly personal account and Douglass’ story of his slave days is an intensely personal and powerful one. It is intended to move the reader through a series of intertwined anecdotes, stories and personal observations. For this reason, the book takes on the personality of its author. Take the meaning of the songs sung by slaves, for example. Douglass says: “I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy…At least, such was my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness.” Douglass says that it has been his experience to sing when he’s sad. Is this true for everyone? Was this the source of blues in American music? These are the kinds of questions that do, indeed, make the book a great one for some readers.

However, those are really minor questions regarding the overall intention of the book. This is the story of a man’s life, not a philosophical treatise. Douglass wants to show the reader what it felt like to be a slave. To quibble over the importance of slave songs is to miss the whole point. And the point is this: how could slavery exist in “the land of the free”? In the Appendix Douglass talks about “Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches?...” What would he think of American churches today? Government has more influence, churches less. Would he approve? Slavery has been abolished. K-12 education is free and freely available to all children. And there are plenty of positive African-American role models living today who have made great contributions to society. But there are also high rates of crime, alcoholism, drug use, teen pregnancy and other problems. How would Douglass feel about that? He relates an incident in the book about teaching other slaves to read and write: “…instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we (the slaves) were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they (the slave owners) had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.” Would Douglass approve of African-American culture in the 21st century? Hard to say. Probably some things yes and some no.

Finally, do some issues trump our own constitution and laws? William Lloyd Garrison (editor of the abolitionist paper Liberator) was persuaded that slavery was one of these issues. He was so moved by the Douglass story that he wrote the Preface to the book. In it he talks to a crowd about protecting Douglass: “I appealed to them, whether they would ever allow him to be carried back into slavery, - law or no law, constitution or no constitution…come what may – cost what it may…” A few years later the whole country would learn the cost when Civil War broke out between the Northern Free states and the Southern Slave states. It’s not true that this book caused that war, but it is true that the book is a powerful reflection of why it happened on such a large and tragic scale.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Frederick Douglass survived a cruel and oppressive childhood to become an advocate for human freedom. His life story is a testimonial for thousands of other slaves who lacked a voice to be heard. For Douglass, slavery was a corrupt, degrading institution that soiled everyone, both masters and slaves, depriving them of dignity and forcing upon them a life of mutual fear and loathing.

The problem of whether any book should be considered "great" offers no easy solution. One argument we hear is that great works of literature make lasting contributions to our culture, whereas ordinary books won't survive the demise of their author. By this standard, Douglass' book, which was originally published in 1845 and is still in print today after 150 years, has already met the test of time. Then, does that mean it will continue to be read in the future? No one can say for sure, but its fame as a literary work depicting slavery in ante-bellum South suggests that it will continue to be read and talked about in the foreseeable future.

Even if Douglass' book survives, should its testimony be regarded as historically accurate, or simply the tale of one's man's personal sorrow. In other words, how reliable is Douglass' as a narrator of his own history, and how does his experience relate to the larger issues of slavery as an economic institution? Can any autobiography truly meet the same standards for objectivity and accuracy as other historical documents? In theory, yes. Names, places, dates, locations, and testimonials by witnesses can all be verified and cross checked with other surviving documents from the same period. Perhaps not all of Douglass' statements can be corroborated, but historical records are often incomplete or contain factual errors. We must acknowledge human fallibility. However, the critical issue for us is whether or not Douglass succeeds in giving a true portrayal of conditions under slavery in the 1840s. It seems that he does. But, the fact remains that there are no other books written by former slaves with which to compare (note: Epictetus wrote nothing himself; his words, like Socrates, were written down by others).

In addition to meeting the standards of time, objectivity and accuracy, autobiography, as a literary form, must demonstrate the same weight and relevance as other historical documents. Does Douglass' book pass this test? It does if properly evaluated. Autobiographies, like diaries and letters, are reservoirs of personal memory, subject to the same errors and apprehensions as any other form of judgment. Are the speeches recorded by Herodotus or Thucydides more reliable than the memories of Frederick Douglass? Is Anne Frank's diary less relevant because it reflects only one Jewish girl's experience of the Holocaust? The simple truth is that every man (or woman)'s life is an excerpt from a larger narrative of human existence, of our long struggle to evolve into a higher consciousness. Yet, it must remain for future generations to judge whether or not any of our individual efforts rise to the level of greatness.

1/29/2007 12:20 PM  
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