Frederick Douglass, Autobiographer and Abolitionist


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 15: Frederick Douglass, Autobiographer and Abolitionist
Dec. 2-6, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Frederick Douglass.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Douglass’s slave narrative.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.



Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Choose an incident that Douglass described in his narrative and explain why you think you chose to include this incident in his story.

Presentation: Frederick Douglass, Autobiographer and Abolitionist (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Genre: Using the features of Douglass’s book as an example, discuss the distinctive features of a slave narrative.

Propaganda: Although it is revered as a piece of literature, Douglass’s slave narrative can also be read as a piece of propaganda.  Explain how Douglass uses his own story to make an argument against slavery.

Manhood: What does Douglass have to say about the meaning of manhood?  Consider, in particular, his description of his fight with Mr. Covey.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding the upcoming final examination.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of the following term:

  • slave narrative


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:


All American: Frederick Douglass features a biographical sketch of Douglass, commentary on his literature, and a chronology of his life, along with lists of his major works, family members, homes, and occupations. 

Updated November 27, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


We wind up our tour of American literature with a look at Frederick Douglass, one of the nation’s greatest African-American authors.


Born into slavery in Maryland around the year of 1817, Frederick Douglass was among the Americans least likely to become a great writer.  Indeed, as he explains in his most famous work, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, his owner discouraged his mistress from teaching him even to read.  Nevertheless, Douglass did learn to read while he was still a boy and, partly through a clever tactic he used on white boys, eventually learned to write.  It would be years before he would put his writing skills to work on his life story, however.  He remained a slave until 1838, when he managed to escape to the north, taking a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia and then on to New York.  In the North, he changed his name from Frederick Bailey to Frederick Douglass and became interested in the abolition movement.  After drawing the attention of William Lloyd Garrison, a leading white abolitionist and editor of a periodical called The Liberator, Douglass spoke out against slavery in a speech at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841.  Four years later he published A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the story of his life as a slave.  Douglass continued to write during the remaining 50 years of his life, publishing My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.  He also edited a newspaper called the New Era, later renamed the New National Era.


Congratulations!  You have completed a wide-ranging, sometimes harrowing tour of early American literature.  Next week, you will have a chance to show off all that you have learned in your oral examination.