FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Prophet of Freedom. By David W. Blight. Simon & Schuster. 764 pages. $37.50.
It was nothing short of genius to place a large photograph of Frederick Douglass in his prime on the dust jacket of this monumental biography. To resist staring at Douglass’ haunting visage every time the book is picked up is impossible, and with each glance the reader lingers a bit longer. Inside the front cover is another shot of Douglass as a slightly older man. Inside the back cover is a picture of the elderly grey-haired Douglass.
Over 77 years, Douglass changed a great deal, but what stayed constant, besides his good looks and imposing physique, is an intelligent and serious gaze revealing the pain of a man who survived and escaped slavery, carved out a life in freedom and went on to achieve fame.
The man who became one of the most important figures of 19th century America, who advanced the abolitionist cause in the U.S. and U.K., who edited newspapers, wrote best-selling books, consulted with presidents and received federal appointments, endured a fear of homelessness and obsessed over questions about his paternity and, most particularly, his exact age. “I have always been troubled,” he wrote heartbreakingly in his final year, “by the thought of having no birthday.”
Author David W. Blight reckons that between 1841 and 1894, Douglass sat for approximately 160 photographs and also wrote essays about the “craft and meaning” of pictures. This is an important point. For all his religiosity and refusal to compromise in his terrifying descriptions of slavery, Douglass was intensely pragmatic, a word the author uses a great deal in this book. It is very likely that Douglass well understood the power of his unforgettable face.
Douglass’ looks and robust speaking style he honed over the years, fueled his storied career as an orator. On the day he died of a heart attack, he was on his way to make another speech.
In 1838, in what was probably his 20th year, Douglass escaped his owners and made his way to Washington, D.C., via several East Coast cities. His illiterate wife Anna kept the home fires burning and raised their children; Douglass spent decades on the road lecturing. He apparently never lost his “volcanic” rage over how he had been treated as a slave, a rage that sounds eerily modern, as if he had been captured as a fully grown, educated adult, instead of having been born into the system.
“I scarcely know what to say in America when I hear men get up and deliberately assert a right to property in my limbs — my very body and soul; that they have a right to me, that I am in their hands ... a thing to be bought and sold!" he once thundered to an English audience.
In an early stroke of luck, Sophia Auld, wife of his master Hugh, daringly decided to teach the young Douglass “his ABCs and first lessons in spelling,” a small initiation that was enough to ignite Douglass’ lifelong love affair with the printed word. Two of his greatest inspirations were the King James Bible and “The Columbian Orator,” a collection of essays by Caleb Bingham (also a favorite of a book-hungry Abraham Lincoln).
Decidedly anti-slavery, Bingham’s goal was to “democratize education and instill in young people the heritage of the American Revolution, as well as the values of republicanism.” Armed with these volumes, Douglass mastered both the jeremiad as an oratorical technique and, more importantly for us today, written English. The talent he developed for the latter is difficult to exaggerate.
Enter Blight, professor of history at Yale University and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale. Blight first began researching Douglass as a Ph.D. student, went on to edit new editions of Douglass’ first and second autobiographies and wrote a number of essays about Douglass. He had no intention of writing a full biography until he stumbled on a cache of unused primary documents in Savannah, Ga., a happy accident every historian dreams about. The collection included Douglass family scrapbooks, letters and photographs, as well as handwritten and typescript versions of many speeches.
The Savannah material gave Blight invaluable insights into the former slave’s later years. It is a major accomplishment that Blight makes extremely lavish use of Douglass’ own words without giving the reader the impression that he is dependent on them to the exclusion of other sources. In fact, the Douglass he presents, while deeply sympathetic, is an individual with many layers, capable of resorting to fisticuffs when attacked on the lectern, and fiercely loyal to the Republican Party even when it began to abandon freed people after Reconstruction.
He was a man who worked tirelessly to provide financially and emotionally for extended family and friends, but who openly allowed at least two women, Julia Griffiths and Ottilie Assing, into his marriage (the full nature of these relationships are mysterious). Douglass famously preached self-reliance, but also demanded help from the federal government in matters of justice, such as the vote and access to education.
It is an extremely challenging task to make a very long, serious volume of history into a page turner, but Robert Blight has achieved that in this polished, deeply researched biography.