Frederick Douglass







Issues and themes

Frederick Douglass is the most famous author of a literary genre known as the slave narrative. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, like Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, not only exposes the horrors of slavery, but addresses several central themes of the black Americans' experience. As Douglass explains in the first chapter of his narrative, for example, identity was a problem for him and other slaves, who usually did not know their birthday or, in some cases, their parentage. Later, he takes up the topics of race, language, freedom, and empowerment. In the century and a half since the publication of Douglass's book, many of these subjects have continued to interest black American writers, including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

While it carries particular significance for students and scholars of African-American literature, Douglass's narrative is also the story of an American, a man, and a human being. As an account of free will and self-creation, the book puts Douglass in a tradition that also includes John Smith, Benjamin Franklin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In its riveting account of Douglass's confrontation with Mr. Covey, it treats the connection between violence and manhood--a topic that also interested Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers. Finally, the story can be read as a nonfictional bildungsroman, in which Douglass recounts his rise to adulthood.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.


© Mark Canada, 1997

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