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Frederick Douglass, Slave Narrative (American National Biography)

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Roy E. Finkenbine, "Douglass, Frederick," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/15/15-00186.html.

Douglass's growing sophistication as a speaker brought other difficulties in the mid-1840s. At first, his speeches were simple accounts of his life in bondage. But as he matured as an antislavery lecturer, he increasingly sought to provide a critical analysis of both slavery and northern racial prejudice. His eloquence and keen mind even led some to question whether he had ever been a slave. As Douglass's skills--combined with his circumspection--prompted critics to question his credibility, some white abolitionists feared that his effectiveness on the platform might be lost. They advised him to speak more haltingly and to hew to his earlier simple tale. One white colleague thought it "better to have a little of the plantation" in his speech.

Douglass bristled under such paternalistic tutelage. An answer was to publish an autobiography providing full details of his life that he had withheld. Although some friends argued against that course, fearing for his safety, Douglass sat down in the winter of 1844-1845 and wrote the story of his life. The result was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1845). The brief autobiography, which ran only to 144 pages, put his platform tale into print and reached a broad American and European audience. It sold more than 30,000 copies in the United States and Britain within five years and was translated into French, German, and Dutch. Along with his public lectures, "the Narrative made Frederick Douglass the most famous black person in the world."

How to Cite This Page: "Frederick Douglass, Slave Narrative (American National Biography)," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/15955.