FREDERICK DOUGLASS by William S. McFeely

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Univ. of Georgia history professor McFeely follows up his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grant (1981) with a more psychologically daunting and intriguing subject: Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the fiery black orator and editor of the abolitionist newspaper North Star. Much of this biography covers ground explored by previous chroniclers: Douglass's birth to a Maryland slave and an unknown white father; escape to freedom; close association with--and subsequent break from--William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society; fireless recruitment of black soldiers in the Civil War; and postwar service in government posts that did not measure up to his talents. Douglass's three autobiographies--despite starkly compelling insights into his lot as slave and triumph as freeman--contain puzzling gaps and inconsistencies about his private life that McFeely tries to address. The abolitionist, McFeely contends, turned former master Thomas Auld from a morally ambiguous figure into an antebellum caricature. Dissatisfied with his first marriage, a 45-year misalliance with an illiterate ex-slave, Douglass scandalized associates by pursuing close friendships with two white women and by later marrying a third. However, given Douglass's stony reticence, McFeely often has to resort to conjecture about his subject's interior life in these instances. On surer, more documented ground with public affairs, he offers searching moral scrutiny about Douglass's post-Civil War period, when he championed women's suffrage, initially ignored the Republican party's retreat from Reconstruction and civil rights, and finally unleashed a magnificent denunciation of lynching and pseudoscientific race supremacy theories. Try as he might, McFeely can't tear off the veil covering the private Douglass. Yet the public agitator--brilliant, fiercely proud, anticlerical, nobody's Uncle Tom-comes fully and vibrantly to life.

Pub Date: Jan. 28th, 1990
ISBN: 393-02823-2
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:




MORE BY WILLIAM S. MCFEELY

SIMILAR BOOKS SUGGESTED BY OUR CRITICS:

NonfictionFREDERICK DOUGLASS by David W. Blight
by David W. Blight