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by Robert S. Levine

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-674-05581-0
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

A compelling scholarly study of the evolution of Frederick Douglass’ thinking.

Over the course of his life (1818-1895), Douglass published three autobiographies, continually revising and restructuring his life story as an ex-slave. Yet he is read and celebrated mostly for his first, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845 under the aegis of William Lloyd Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In this finely delineated look at Douglass’ writing, Levine (English/Univ. of Maryland; Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism, 2008, etc.) urges new readings of his subject’s other autobiographical works, as well as his 1853 novella, The Heroic Slave, in order to grasp a fuller understanding of how Douglass came into his own and began to move away from Garrison’s “moral suasion” to an advocacy of black militancy and beyond. Douglass became hugely famous in his late 20s with Narrative, which was probably edited by Garrison and prefaced with what some scholars view as patronizing remarks by his “white sponsor.” However, Levine sees the collaboration between the two as “productive.” Indeed, while Douglass wrote his Narrative under the constraints of the Anti-Slavery Society, Levine finds that Garrison was influenced by Douglass’ text as significantly as Douglass gained by Garrison’s initial endorsement. Sent to Britain by Garrison’s society to spread the abolitionist message and also for his own safety, Douglass immediately began to assume an independent authorial voice and work on the publication of a revision of the autobiography, while also giving speeches and publishing essays that reveal how he was moving away from Garrison’s ideas and establishing a powerful black persona. Upon his return, he published his own newspaper, North Star, and broke completely with Garrison, making bold statements about necessary black violence in confronting slavery. Levine’s exploration of the character of Madison Washington in The Heroic Slave as Douglass’ alter ego and his views of John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln are especially elucidating.

An astute, thorough literary study that will invite fresh readings of Douglass’ writing.