A lengthy but easily digestible biography of the famed ex-slave, abolitionist, and autobiographer.
In this superbly written book, Civil War and Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) scholar Blight (American History/Yale Univ.; American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, 2011, etc.), a winner of the Bancroft, Abraham Lincoln, and Anisfield-Wolf prizes, ably captures his complex subject from all angles. While many readers may be familiar with Douglass’ escape from slavery, self-education, and early life (thanks to his autobiographies), most nonscholars are not as well-versed in the details of his later life—e.g., his role in the Civil War, political campaigning, fight for suffrage, complicated family relationships, and more. It’s in these later years that Blight’s work really shines; in fact, Douglass’ early slave life and escape only cover roughly the first 100 pages of the 760-page narrative (followed by 100 pages of notes). From there, Blight makes the case for Douglass as an American prophet in the mold of the Old Testament’s Jeremiah or Isaiah. Though he often scolded and admonished in his speeches and writings, often in King James–style vernacular, he also never gave up hope of a coming time of freedom for his black brethren. Douglass truly was the “prophet of freedom” all the way until his death in 1895, fighting for civil rights until the very end. While some readers may want more coverage of his early life, and perhaps more analysis of what Douglass means today, Blight viscerally captures the vitality, strength, and determination of his subject. For such a renowned figure, who was perhaps the most photographed and recognizable person of the 19th century, there is surprisingly little in the way of modern, full-scale, accessible biographies. Blight delivers what is sure to be considered the standard-bearer for years to come.
A masterful, comprehensive biography, particularly of Douglass’ Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age years and occupations.