I just disposed of a bug on my desk. That should have been sufficient time to find out that Frederick Douglass was one photogenic man’s man. It isn’t just that he looks good, and he was genuine movie star good looking, or that he has some of the best hair in history, but in each photograph he looks like the smartest man in any room. And he was a badass. In chapter 10 he beats a former master so bad that he was never abused again. Oh, and he taught himself to read and write.
One of the best things I’ve done in the past year was read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In terms of craft, Douglass gets no credit for his mastery of the written word. True, his life’s work is well-remembered, honored, and memorialized around the country, but that man could write circles around the best we have today. Prior to writing his first of three autobiographies, the man had been literate for roughly ten years. It’s difficult to keep track of dates in the life of Frederick Douglass because, as he notes on the first page, he’s not sure when he was born. His timeline is loosely based on overhearing a former master say at one point that he was about seventeen.
When he was around seven or eight, Douglass was sent from a plantation to live with a new master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Auld, in Baltimore. There, Mrs. Auld began to teach him the alphabet. This went well until Mr. Auld found out and put a stop to educating their slave, but Douglass had the inch he needed. He saw the power of the written word as the gateway to freedom. Over the next few years, he traded food with local boys in exchange for reading lessons.
In 1845, when Douglass wrote his first autobiography, he already had the craft of memoir figured out. Rather than just telling a “this is what happened to me” story, which might actually have been enough given how incredible his life was, Douglass includes reflection on every page to make his story mean something. Almost one-hundred and seventy years ago Douglass understood what Vivian Gornick would call the situation and the story.
Towards the end of chapter four Douglass wrote one of my all-time favorite sentences, a sentence that embodies what I love about nonfiction and the essay: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence.” Douglass holds true to this statement by treating all of the characters fairly, almost painfully fairly at times. Despite the Aulds being slave owners, Douglass writes, “In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”
The full text of his autobiography is part of Project Gutenberg, and LibriVox, among others, has the audio file for free. There’s no excuse not to read this underrated writer this year.
Joe Slocum attends the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. He is the Nonfiction Editor at Willow Springs, and misses Michigan dearly.