The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is an incisive, soul-piercing document. It reaches for your heart with the sincerest intention of ripping it out still-beating from the chest. Even for the most die-hard atheist, it’s hard not to see this testimony as a work brought into existence by the powers of the supernatural. The details are too excruciating; to think that it wasn’t part of some nightmarish dream, that it really happened, is why it seems only divine providence could have intervened, to institute the agency of documentation against the industrialized-scale horrors men are capable of creating, to lay the groundwork for bringing it to an end.
Douglass’s Narrative calls attention to the power of the first-person form and in his particular case, the very substance of what it means to stretch a reader’s credulity. William Lloyd Garrison writes, “It is, therefore, entirely his own production; and, considering how long and dark was the career he had to run as a slave,—how few have been his opportunities to improve his mind since he broke his iron fetters,—it is, in my judgment, highly creditable to his head and heart.” In his opinion the work is “essentially true” and in sum, this is all to suggest that the account is simply — very hard to believe — and that, in order for the readers of his era to believe it, he had to offer a seal of approval so as to get the ball rolling.
The text is one that tends to balk at analytical criticism because of the readerly tendency to wince in dismay as the tale unfolds. It is thematic material to the nth degree, pertaining to the worst of themes considerable to the human race. For the year of its release, the material is shocking, but we can thank the passing of time for uncovering “most” of what went on and presenting it to the public. In that regard, while there is no element of Southern State Slavery that is less or more inhumane over the other, one particular element glows with the intensity of pure evil.
When Douglass relays in but a few sentences how a man named Mr. Thomas murdered one of his slaves, only to boast about it later “laughingly,” the terseness of describing this act-of-the-despicable overpowers what any full-length novel of fiction could ever hope to achieve. The murder of Demby takes up the whole of a solitary paragraph, but we are left with feelings of perplexity that will last for all time. The actions of Mrs. Hicks, who kills a slave-girl with a log, challenges our naturally held beliefs about women, and Mr. Bondly’s actions define him as someone lost from the realms of humanity.
This kind of reading is blistering to the mind because of the brevity of each linguistic moment. Douglass has no desire to craft passages that will draw admiration for his skill as a writer; these are indictments against a system. It forces people to think about what the system does, not only to the people suffering, but as well to its proponents, which is a part of Douglass’s message. I’m inclined to think of the Milgram Experiments, which exposes one of the scariest aspects of being human, dictating that when a person is not completely in touch with the “reality of reality” at any given time, they can be duped into behaving immorally under the guidance of scripted information that is being directed into their minds.
Douglass actually touches on a variable of these experiments when he describes Mr. Hopkins as a man who “whipped, but seemed to take no pleasure in it.” This is a man whose subconscious is grappling with the tension that extends between the (perceived) duty of his enterprise and the feeling that it may not be right. A woman like Mrs. Hicks, by contrast, has come to feel practically comfortable committing a heinous crime, because she isn’t entirely aware of the localized and greater effects of her behavior; she’s only aware that other people are doing it too. Mrs. Hicks is not a psychopath, she’s been conditioned by a mode of thinking that views slavery as an acceptable part of a system of government; it is a mode of thinking that goes deep into the psyche of humankind, archetypal, stretching well into ancient times and beyond. Thankfully, the Milgram Experiments show that every once in while, a person will question the morality of what is happening and actually defy the orders given. But as we have seen, as played out in the Civil War, the deeper that the structure of a thought-system is ingrained into a larger social consciousness, the harder it is to set matters straight.
Murder is the ultimate inhumanity; it is permanent erasure. In the case as it plays out in the slavery narrative, words can’t fully do justice as to how perverse it really is with regard to the core of humanity; but Douglass delivers more that is certain to have readers reaching for extra tissue. He describes an old woman of whom, “her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness.” They may as well have ended her life, and this highlights the psychological damage that is as crushing as the physical; she’s been sentenced literally to die of sadness. We hear of the voices of those who “would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs,” and we are complete in our privy to the terrors of cause and effect at the most intimate levels. The soul-sickness of believing slavery is acceptable, pervasive throughout the social consciousness of the South, has its inversion in the tormented consciousness of their subjects.
Douglass tells us how it was all kept in order. By allowing time-off between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the vacation was meant to be seen as a gift, “to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.” Whiskey was provided along with provisions for a celebratory atmosphere, giving the impression that freedom was in the midst. “[W]hen the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, — feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.” The process was meant to serve as a “safety-valve” to prevent uprising, a continuous source of anxiety for plantation owners, and what we have is a concocted system of control. (It’s worth noting that Douglass’s experience is based on life in Maryland, where states further south of the Mason/Dixon line such as Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana were viewed, by rumor and with dread, as inexplicably worse.)
Can we believe that these acts of mind-manipulation occurred during the Christmas holiday? Douglass addresses the topic of religion point-blank, telling it like it is, calling b*llsh*t when he sees it. The “hypocritical Christian” paradox is threaded throughout much of his testimony. Not only did slaveholders propagate ongoing misery, but reverends and devout men of God are described as capable of committing the most vile acts, all within the omnipresence of a holy lord. This is one that defies even the results of the Milgram Experiments, because the messages of the New Testament do not appear to condone the brutality described. There is no authoritative voice instructing slave owners and people of the South to inflict this kind of pain. Douglass drives the point home, how the institution of slavery taints both the souls of those suffering and the people who conduct it as a way of life.
Easing the matter with the slightest edge of optimism, the passion with which Frederick Douglass sought to educate himself is marveling to absorb. He wrote alphabetic letters on fences with chalk and conned neighborhood kids to teach him various things from books. It shows how neglecting our intrinsic need to learn, by some happenstance biologically-neurological process, can cause the mind itself to formulate a “mind of its own” so as to overcome mental stagnancy. In light of the tremendous skill with which Douglass wields the English language, had not the horrors of slavery been so foremost in his thoughts, great novels could’ve been written by this man. He employs literary devices with ease, the most prominent one being a sort of parallel-inverse play on words to denote circumstances and situations that are flagrantly inexorable. The opening chapters, for example, bring us to Douglass’s aunt, whose master “would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush.” His nemesis, the overseer Mr. Covey, was fiendish about his job: “The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.” This kind of writing reflects an absolute presence and connection with the thematic material such that readers are seemingly doubly-smacked by the points of detail.
If there is any one passage that thoroughly expresses the sorrow and the longing, the integrity and the injustice of Douglass’s experience, the moment when he realizes what’s really going on is where the totality of all that is wrong is entirely defined. “Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.” Moments like these speak to the deepest recesses of our souls because they circumscribe the meaning of entire lifetimes, the case here being, the difference between what it means to be free and what it means to be shackled in chains. Frederick Douglass is a man whose life was singled-out and extracted by the ardent sense of purpose he was able to seize, and the world will be a better place for it, for as long as we have his narrative to remind us how it all really happened.