Book Review: The Lives of Frederick Douglass
by Robert S. Levine
Harvard University Press, 2015
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the literature of a nation as braying and solipsistic as America should be so heavily studded with autobiographies. Redemption through mirror-gazing (with a healthy ingredient of greed mixed in for flavor) is in the very air of the United States and has been from the beginning, as Benjamin Franklin’s best-selling Autobiography amply demonstrates. Since Franklin, autobiographies have poured off the American presses, and whatever element of the national psyche prompted the surfeit also prompted an undeniable flair for the genre. American memoirs are among the best Amercan books and are often the best things we have from their authors. The sprawling histories (and one lamentable novel) of Henry Adams are long forgotten, while the brilliance of his The Education of Henry Adams enjoys an immortality in colleges and lists of best American books. Ulysses Grant crowned a life of blood-gulping military slaughters and blush-inducing political failures with a memoir fit to stand alongside Dispatches by Michael Herr or War as I Knew It by General Patton. P. T. Barnum’s hilarious 1869 Struggles and Triumphs, Moss Hart’s unforgettable Act One, Mary McCarthy’s wily Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Mark Twain’s ebullient Life on the Mississippi, Christopher Reeve’s incredibly brave Still Me, even the congealed bombast of Norman Schwarzkopf’s It Doesn’t Take a Hero … all have flowed from the pens of authors who thought their stories spoke to the general American reading public – and beyond.
It’s no surprise, then, that we know Frederick Douglass more through his autobiography than through any other lens. As Robert Levine remarks in his thoughtful, ground-setting book The Lives of Frederick Douglass, talking about Douglass’s 1845 book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:
A recent search of the Books in Print database shows that there are approximately 400 editions of Douglass’s Narrative in print (books, e-books, and audio recordings), which far outnumber editions of the other autobiographies and collections of Douglass’s miscellaneous writings … The Narrative truly is everywhere in American literary study: it appears (usually in full) in all of the major American literature anthologies; it serves as a prime example of African American writing in numerous American literature courses; it also serves as the prime example of African American autobiography and the slave narrative for those interested in traditions of autobiography but not in the full range of African American autobiography. Outside of the classroom, it remains the text that, for many, defines the totality of Douglass’s career, given that most people have a sense of Douglass’s historical and cultural significance know him either through the Narrative or from accounts that draw on the Narrative.
But as Levine points out repeatedly in his book, “We need to rethink what it is we’re reading when we read the Narrative.” It was, after all, only the first book Douglass wrote, and he wrote it quickly at the age of 27 under the auspices of William Lloyd Garrison’s Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. It’s this book, so suffused with stern eloquence and rhetorical power, that shot Douglass to the public’s attention, and it’s this book that’s a fixture on all those college reading lists Levine mentions.
But more so than any previous author in North America, Douglass spent his life writing his life. He not only continuously tinkered with new editions of the Narrative, but in 1855 he wrote a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, and from 1881 to 1892, he worked harder than he ever had before on the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which he considered his masterpiece even though it met with sometimes mixed reactions from critics (in 1881, one such critic sourly wrote, “Here is reason enough why a man should wait till there is five feet of good solid earth over him before he provokes the world to talk about him by taking it into his confidence”).
Levine scrutinizes not merely the times and the life-circumstances surrounding the generation of these three very different accounts Douglass wrote of himself but also the texts themselves, the tectonic changes running underneath them. It’s a sustained performance of first-rate literary analysis on Levine’s part (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass can be a bit of a slog), and he adds to this invaluable service by truly taking one for the team and reading The Heroic Slave, the novel Douglass wrote in 1853 about a slave named Madison Washington who nobly overcomes all sorts of challenges. The Heroic Slave likewise elicited some carping from the critics, which Levine acknowledges but tries to refute:
But The Heroic Slave is much more than Douglass’s “fantasy of his own heroism,” as [one critic] somewhat patronizingly terms the novella. It is a historiographical meditation on the challenge of writing a black life in a white racist culture – the very challenge that Douglass takes up in his own life writings.
A historical meditation on the challenge of writing a black life in a white racist culture … sure, certainly. But also a fantasy of the author’s own heroism, and largely tedious because it was a rare instance of concocted fiction being less dramatic than the actual facts of the novelist’s life.
But it scarcely matters – even when Levine doesn’t convince, he engages. And he also performs that most crucial of all the services of literary criticism: he compels his readers back to the sources. The more 21st century readers who find the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the better.