Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book Review

FYI, I wrote this 15 years ago while in college… copying over some old reviews now!

I first read the biographical introduction about Frederick Douglass and learned many new things. I knew he wrote a few autobiographies, but I never knew that he spanned them over 40 years of writing and that he lived for close to 80 years. I then read both the preface by Garrison and the letter to Douglass. They were excellent introductions to the narrative by Frederick Douglass. They set the mood and get you ready to experience a whole new set of emotions when you read Douglass’ Life of an American Slave, etc. It really prepares you for the glory in the words and language. You realize how much Douglass meant to the enslaved people. It also gives you an overwhelming sense of sullen melancholy. You almost can’t believe that something like “this” happened to Douglass. It is very powerful and emotional.
Douglass’ work definitely is effective. It moves the reader deeply. All I can say about book 1 is that I was utterly repulsed by what I read. How any person could do that to another human being because their skin is a different color is absolutely hideous. I was so angry that I wanted to just scream out profanities to the slaveholders. Douglass’ memory and description is so vivid. I could see the apple red blood drip to the floor almost like it was an IV at times when he whipped her so much there was hardly any blood left. I wonder though if this was an exaggeration. Garrison claims that it isn’t, but it is so vile and disgusting that it can’t be real. Can it? In Book 2, at least we learn that the slaves are treated a little better at times. They go for a walk to the Great Farm House if they are a representative which gives them some time to themselves without the fear of a whipping. They sing songs and have a little bit of fun at least: although Frederick says that they never had any real joy with it, not tears of joy or happiness. I was so upset by this. No joy and forced to go through all that they did. It is horrible. Also, the rations they received were so minute. I wonder how they ever survived.
In Book 3… The garden that was near the plantation was nice. It would give the slaves something to look at, except that it also tempted them to steal some fruit and vegetables, which would result in severe punishing. And all of this so far, happened when Frederick was still just a child. I often thought that it was just a game to see how many times they could whip a slave or get him/her to do wrong. It was almost as if they purposely set them up using spies, etc. To try and catch them in the act. I think that is incredibly inhumane and awful. If I have this many feelings about the narrative so far, it just shoes how great an author Douglass is. He is able to capture attention and make you yell out in angst against the evil masters and overseers. By the end of Book 6, we learn that Douglass has learned how to read and write. He has also learned what an abolitionist is. He begins to see more out into real life, rather than the life of a slave. He has been through several new masters, some good and some bad. Also, during this time, he tells the readers that it is better off to be dead than to be a black slave in 19th century America.
In later books we learn that it is especially horrible when you have been treated nicely as a slave and then you go to a plantation where they treat you despicably. Douglass is extremely effective at showing his audience this. Douglass also tells how he was shipped all over the place whenever his masters died or got tired of him. I see how it becomes a game again. I also see that maybe the slaves could be compared to the life of a nomad who has no one common place to stay.

Not an easy one to read, but important to understand how bad the situation was. Hearing about it or knowing of it is one thing. Reading specifics is entirely another.

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  1. I’m so glad I posted today and evoked a ‘like’ from you, so it led me to this post. Yes, this level of horror was real. And it’s so important to remember and understand viscerally. Douglass was educated and articulate. For that reason his words carried the story of…at least a century – perhaps more – of those that were purposely kept illiterate. I don’t know where to begin…tempted to reply to so many of your points. First in importance is, thank you for posting this and letting neither the suffering nor the cruelty be forgotten.
    US society and politics have worked hard to bury history with comfort and consumer products. Before you think I’m a zealous wacko, I’ll tell you I’m an observer, thinker and one who is deeply interested in Black American history. I grew up in the South with both a Western and Canadian parent who taught me to pay attention to deeper things. I lived in Miami in the late 60’s early 70’s and I was consumed with interest in the racial conflict around me. I didn’t have a side, I just saw and felt.
    So, I will tell you to believe Douglass. He was not an exaggerator and he had no reason to write with the sensationalism we’ve come to digest as daily Pablum from current new sources. Pain and blood are ALL real. So sad. And it encourages me in a pained way that you had the heart to mourn.
    Other point I must address is your commentary that the ‘game’ began again when a slave was displaced. I’m a white woman married to a black man. Even with my background of direct observation and intense reading, and study of this particular view of the past, I had no idea the psychological and dare I say, spiritual, scar that was left by slavery. Self-image and past of poverty-leaving lack of privilege is only the beginning. Through over twenty years of living with a black husband, I’ve realized…The transience and lack of control – the involuntary destruction of the family – that occurred when slaves were sold or otherwise separated from those they knew and loved has left a devastating legacy in scarring of individuals. Family dynamics and the concept and heart-nurturing value of community have been terribly set back and perhaps impossibly damaged. It comes out in daily life in so many ways. The healing is unimaginable.
    But it starts with remembrance and understanding. Thanks for reading Douglass and for penning this post. Do not let such thing be forgotten or think they’re myth. So sorry for such a long comment. You hit on an important and deep point of history and heart. Thanks again for reading, posting and caring.


    • Ah, I found it in spam. That’s why I didn’t see it earlier. It’s a good thing you mentioned it on Goodreads or it would’ve been deleted without me ever having known it.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on it. I can’t imagine what it was like for anyone to go thru this… and the scars are probably so permanent that we’ll never know how different it could have been if people weren’t the way they’ve been at time (and sometimes still continue to be). 😦

      Liked by 1 person

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