copyright © 2006
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.