Scrupulous research informs a new biography of the charismatic and influential African-American abolitionist.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) has been the subject of many fine biographies, as Fought (History/LeMoyne Coll.; A History of Mystic Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town, 2007, etc.) acknowledges, but none examines as intimately Douglass’ relationships with women: his mother, slave mistresses, wives, daughters, and especially the white women who supported his causes throughout his career. His life, argues the author persuasively, was shaped by women. The first was Sophia Auld, his slave master’s wife, who spent a year teaching the young Frederick Johnson to read, until her husband forbade it. Nevertheless, “the subversive power of literacy” changed the boy’s life. He fled from enslavement to marry Anna Murray, a free woman, who shared his aspirations to move into the middle class; when they married in New York, both took the surname Douglass, hoping it would distinguish them from the many Johnsons who were sought by slave-catchers. Anna was illiterate, and although Fought portrays her as a source of strength for her husband, she could not offer the intellectual companionship and worldliness of other women who gravitated to him. At anti-slavery meetings, abolitionist societies, and women’s rights organizations, many participants were drawn to Douglass, a man some called the African Prince, “conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his physical proportions, majestic in his wrath.” Fought focuses on the British abolitionist Julia Griffiths and the German reformer Ottilie Assing, with whom Douglass could discuss politics, literature, and religion. For a time, he brought both women to live in his household, where he and his guests would retire for hours to his study, generating “marital disagreement” and slanderous gossip. Because Griffiths and Assing were white, Douglass’ critics took an opportunity to attack his morality, a campaign that intensified after the widowed Douglass married a white woman. Fought highlights ferocious in-fighting among anti-slavery groups, the Douglass family’s close ties to John Brown, and Douglass’ evolving political views.
A fresh and insightful perspective on a major historical figure.