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In My Good Books

Runaway Success

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
20 May 2006

Everything about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the first of three versions of the author's autobiography, published in 1845, is interesting and impressive. But the most interesting and moving passage concerns his learning to read and write, at around the age of 12. This holds the key to the central issue of the book.

From the child's point of view, if he can defy the slave-owners' prohibition and learn to read and write, he has a chance of escape. For us, reading the account he wrote 15 years later, it is our first chance to glimpse something of how that precious eloquence was achieved. We expect, with such narratives, to hear the rhetoric of religion, and of course there is something of that in Douglass.

But the first book the 12-year-old Douglass makes his own is Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator (1797), a collection of excerpts from speeches, plays and poems on such subjects as patriotism, education and freedom. After an introduction on the subject of public speaking, it contains a dialogue, written by Bingham, between a slave who has run away three times and his master. "The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master - things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation of the slave on the part of the master."

Here too Douglass tells us he "met with one of Sheridan's mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation" -- but in this he is slightly mistaken. The note in the Library of America edition tells us that the passage in question was in fact an excerpt from a speech made in the Irish House of Commons in 1795 by Arthur O'Connor. Either way, the meaning is the same: the child in Maryland was learning the rhetoric and themes of Anglo-Irish debate, in advance of acquiring the ability to write.

This last point comes as a surprise: surely if he can read he can imitate letters on the page? Perhaps he can, but what he needs is of course to learn handwritten script. Beautiful in its simplicity is the description of how, in Durgin and Bailey's shipyard, Baltimore, he made his first discoveries, noting how the carpenters would mark a piece intended for the larboard side with an L, starboard with an S, larboard side forward with and LF, starboard aft with SA.

Armed with his knowledge of these four letters, "After that, when I met with any boy who I knew could write, I would tell him I could write as well as he. The next word would be, 'I don't believe you. Let me see you try it.' I would then make the letters which I had been so fortunate as to learn, and ask him to beat that."

And so the boy Douglass comes to steal the Promethean flame. The autobiography does not fully inform us of every step in his subsequent education, but this short first version of it is worth reading for that incomparable urgency, freshness and engagement. We do not learn, for instance, any details of how the author escaped north in 1838 to freedom in New York by the Underground Railroad, precisely because giving such details would jeopardise the chances of other escaping slaves. But we are amply rewarded for our patience in this respect by our sense of being in the presence of such an eloquent speaker, in the 1840s, at the centre of the abolitionist campaign.

There are numerous American slave narratives, over 100 of book length written before the end of the civil war. We are told that "Between 1703 and 1944, when George Washington Carver published his autobiography ... six thousand and six ex-slaves had narrated the stories of their captivity, through interviews, essays and books." Among the points recommending Douglass are his continual carefulness in distinguishing between different grades of cruelty among the men and woman for whom he worked, and his ability to evoke both the overwhelming desire of the slaves for freedom, and their fear of taking the first steps to achieve it.

Douglass, working down in Maryland, organises an escape which is somehow betrayed. The mother of one of the men he has got into trouble has an outburst against Douglass (whose father was white). "You devil! You yellow devil! It was you that put it into the heads of Henry and John to run away. But for you, you long-legged mulatto devil! Henry and John would never have thought of such a thing." He records many insults from his white masters, but this kind of blame must have been particularly bitter to record.

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