Houston A Baker Jr introduces Douglass’ narrative by positioning it within a rich tradition in two senses. Firstly, many former slaves published accounts of their experiences – a fact that I was not aware of and that Baker says has been poorly acknowledged, while the work of white abolitionists has been much-celebrated. Secondly, the literary interests of the period, absorbed by Douglass in his forbidden, covert, voracious reading, are expressed through the lyrical and dramatic qualities of his prose.
I suppose I expected a very spare memoir, but the writing is very beautiful, in a style that feels of the period: elegantly formal, never deploying a pronoun when a nice synonym is at hand, yet always quick-footed and clear.
Douglass, born a slave, experienced hunger, cold, whippings, beatings and other abuses, from childhood. Brutal overseers and slaveholders are often presented as exceptionally evil people, but Douglass shows through examples that slave-holding brutalises folks who would otherwise be kind and generous by disposition, watching the sweet-hearted woman who began to teach him to read (he had to finish the process unaided after her husband forbade it) become as bitterly cruel as any whip-cracking overseer. Slavery dehumanises both owned and owner.
As Douglass gained more autonomy and better conditions (his experience was fortunate relative to the circumstances of the vast majority of slaves) he became ever more determined to gain his freedom. He trained in caulking, and began contracting, completing and collecting money for his own work, and at the end of the week had to give up his entire earnings – a situation identical to plantation slavery in terms of exploitation, but all the more galling in that he received the money directly before it was stolen from him!
I liked reading about Douglass’ arrival in wealthy New Bedford, where he says he was astonished by the quality of life enjoyed there, and the sight of free black people living in houses finer than those of Southern slave-holders. He had been led to believe that prosperity could not exist without slavery and that the people of the North must be in the miserable condition of ‘poor whites’ ie non slave-holders in the South. (However, I think this revelation should not be used to obscure that Northern prosperity was built on the backs of slaves.)
Special ire is reserved for very religious slaveholders, who Douglass adamantly declares to be the worst kind in every way. A devout Christian himself, he writes passionately against ‘the boldest of all frauds and the grossest of all libels’ manifest in calling the USA a Christian country.