- Father: unknown white man
- Mother was separated from him when he was an infant
- After his escape from slavery, he changed his name from Frederick Bailey
to Frederick Douglass to avoid identification.
- consul-general to Haiti
- 1818: born into slavery in Maryland
- 1838: escapes to Massachusetts
- 1841: becomes an abolitionist
- 1845: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,
Written by Himself.
- 1847: begins publishing The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper
- 1855: My Bondage and My Freedom
- 1881: The Life and Times of 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.
- Publication: 1845
- In the first chapter of his narrative, Douglass shows that slaves lacked
a strong sense of identity. Why? What might be some consequences of this
- What does Douglass's narrative reveal about the institution of slavery?
Consider not only its practical implementation, but the motivations behind
it and its effect on slaves.
- How does Mr. Covey turn Douglass into a "brute"?
- What aspect of slavery seems to disturb Douglass the most and makes
him decide to escape?
- Analyze this passage: "You are loosed from your moorings, and
are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!" (900).
- Douglass says that impudence is a terrible offense in the eyes of slaveholders.
What is impudence? Why do you think it disturbed slaveholders?
- Explain the differences between Mr. Covey and Mr. Freeland. How do
you explain these differences?
- Why does Douglass see his fight with Mr. Covey as a turning point in
his life? What transformation takes place?
- Why was reading so important to slaves and so offensive to slaveholders?
- Identify some characteristics of the bildungsroman in this narrative.
For example, consider Douglass's ideas about "manhood."
- Identify some of Douglass's allusions. What do they contribute to the
meaning or effect of his narrative?
- Most of Douglass's readers were white. In what ways does Douglass take
his audience into consideration when composing his narrative?
- Analyze Douglass's style. Do you find it engaging? Why or why not?
- "Frederick Douglass." Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Shorter Fourth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. 14-16.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave, Written by Himself. Norton Anthology of American
Literature. Shorter Fourth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. 885-916.
© Mark Canada, 1997
Quoting any of the phrases or paraphrasing any of the ideas on this site
without citing this site is plagiarism, a serious form of academic misconduct
that can result in failure of a course, dismissal from a university, or
- If you use the citation style suggested by Janice R. Walker, co-author
of the Columbia Guide to Online Style and author of "MLA-Style
Citations of Electronic Sources" on the World Wide Web, a reference
to this site on a "Works Cited" page would appear as follows:
- Canada, Mark, ed. "Frederick Douglass." Canada's America.
1997. http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/canam/douglass.htm (*).
*Inside the parentheses, type the date on which you are viewing this