The epitome of the antebellum fugitive slave narrative, Frederick Douglass's Narrative was published in May 1845 by the American Anti-Slavery Society of Boston. Priced at fifty cents a copy, the Narrative's first printing of five thousand sold out in four months. To satisfy demand, four additional reprintings of two thousand copies each were brought out within a year. By 1850 approximately thirty thousand copies of the Narrative had been sold in the United States and Great Britain. In 1846, a Dutch translation and in 1848, a French translation of the Narrative helped spread Douglass's fame on the European continent. Sales were helped greatly by positive reviews that compared Douglass's style to that of John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. The fact that the Narrative bore the subtitle “Written by Himself” witnessed powerfully to the capacity of the African American, even when oppressed through years of slavery, to speak eloquently on his own behalf against social and economic injustice.
The self-consciousness of the writing in the Narrative attests to Douglass's determination to make his story not merely an exposé of the evils of slavery but also an exploration of the mind of a slave aspiring to freedom. The key to the originality and import of Douglass's rendition of his life, in contrast to that of most other fugitive slave narrators, is his emphasis on the psychological and intellectual struggle that he waged against slavery from his early childhood on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Narrative recounts Douglass's boyhood as a series of challenges to white authorities intent on preventing him from achieving knowledge of himself and his relationship to the outside world. Resistance to slavery takes the form of an early clandestine pursuit of literacy. Armed with the power to read and write, the young slave graduates to a culminating physical rebellion against a slave-breaker, Edward Covey. Douglass's reputation as a fighter gives him a leadership role in the slave community, which he uses to teach other slaves to read and then to engineer a runaway plot. The first attempt for freedom fails, but a second try, in early September 1838, successfully conveys Douglass to New York City. In the last chapter of the Narrative, Douglass recounts his marriage, his integration into a new life of independence and self-sufficiency in the North, and, climactically, his discovery of a vocation as a speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In addition to what it did to open up the minds of whites in the North about the injustice of slavery, Douglass's Narrative also inspired a number of major early African American writers, including William Wells Brown and Harriet A. Jacobs, to undertake literary careers of their own. The Narrative is recognized today as a classic narrative of ascent from South to North in the African American literary canon, and a lasting contribution to the portrait of the romantic individualist in nineteenth-century American literature.
William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865, 1986.William L. Andrews, ed., Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, 1991.
Subjects: Literature — United States History.