“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
Out of all the novels, short stories, and poems we read in my Introduction to Literature class, I chose to write my final paper on Frederick Douglass’ memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Why, you ask? Well, precisely because of Douglass’ skill with language, to which the quoted statement above certainly attests. Despite being raised as a slave with no proper education, Douglass manages to teach himself how to read and write. He views literacy as the key to his freedom, a belief that certainly rings true. It is through these skills that he is able to eventually attain freedom and eventually tell his life story in the form of books.
The reader does not have to wait long to see what a master Douglass is with language, for his proficiency is evident from the very first page. His expansive vocabulary and aptitude for using literary devices never cease to impress me. In particular, I am fascinated by his use of chiasmus in the Narrative, so much so that this was the focus of a large portion of my final paper. For those not familiar with this device, Dictionary.com defines chiasmus as “a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases.” Although the sentence quoted in the beginning of this review is arguably the most well-known and admired examples of chiasmus from Douglass’ pen, there are numerous other notable instances of chiasmus in the Narrative. One of my favorites is:
“He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man.”
I love chiasmus adds depth to any statement, for it is both simply and complex all at once. In a way, the entire Narrative itself (and perhaps even Douglass’ life in general) can be viewed as a kind of chiasmus. Through hard work, determination, and courage Douglass transforms himself into a free man from decades of slavery. This reversal of identities mirrors the structure of chiasmus as it is used in writing, which may suggest why Douglass uses chiasmus so often in the Narrative. Taking a closer look at how books are written never fails to interest me, hence why I found Douglass’ writing so captivating.
Another strength of his Narrative is simply Douglass’ life story itself. What a source of inspiration, not only for people facing racial inequality but for anyone encountering adversity in general. Pure ambition, drive, and bravery allow Douglass to become the person that the peculiar institution desperately tried to prevent him from becoming. His journey to freedom is heart-breaking, unsettling, and frightening at times, but it is also eye-opening, moving, and inspiring. Here is a man who broke the chains in which slavery imprisoned him, a man who proved himself to be arguably even more intelligent and human than the average white American citizen at the time.
The only main weakness of the Narrative that stood out to me is the information that it omits. I understand that it is supposed to be an account of his story, but I would have liked to learn more about certain aspects of his life. For example, towards the very end of the memoir he suddenly reveals that along the way he had fallen in love and gotten married. When did that happen? How did they meet? It was an unexpected twist that seemed very out-of-place, and I think that more information leading up to it would give the reader a better picture of his life.
Overall, Douglass’ Narrative is my favorite piece of literature that I read with my Introduction to Literature class. It combines two of my passions: excellent writing and United States history. I would love to read more of Douglass’ work in the future, and perhaps even see the movie adaptation at some point. No matter what, though, I know that this Narrative will surely stick with me for years to come.
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) 4 out of 5 smileys.
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes!
Have you ever read this book before? What did you think of it? Did you like the movie version? Let me know in the comments section below!