I’ve been fascinated by the life and writing of Frederick Douglass ever since reading his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) in my Introduction to Literature class during my very first semester of college. Born into slavery, Douglass eventually escaped to the North, became a free man, and rose to be a prolific orator and writer in the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. Like countless people throughout history, I am captivated by how eloquently and effectively Douglass was able to portray himself through language. I’ve written more essays about him than any other subject so far in college, all from different perspectives and angles. After writing a research paper about the critical reception of his biographies in a literary theory class, I decided it was time for me to finally read a full biography about this extraordinary figure. One day while browsing the shelves of a local independent bookshop I saw William S. McFeely’s biography Frederick Douglass and decided to give it a try.
Perhaps I should have expected reading a biography about someone who wrote several autobiographies to feel a bit strange, but the feeling didn’t really hit me until about fifty pages in. The story of Douglass’ experiences as a young slave and eventual success at running away sounded extremely familiar because it was– Douglass himself had written about it in all three of his autobiographies: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). At this point I started to ask myself what the point of reading or writing a biography of someone who had written their autobiography was in the first place, but the answer was soon obvious: context. Anyone can write an autobiography any way they want, but the way they portray their own life can vary greatly depending on the context they choose to incorporate. For instance, Douglass left out nearly everything about his personal relationships from his autobiographies, only briefly mentioning that he married a woman named Anna at one point. Readers were left wondering what his life was like behind closed doors, which is information we now know thanks to research done for biographies such as this one.
Speaking of Douglass’ wife, reading about the many women in Douglass’ life was one of the most interesting aspects of this biography. Douglass might have been famously admired both in the North of the United States and abroad in the United Kingdom, but it sounds like Anna was not a huge fan. In reality, it seems like Douglass was a pretty mediocre husband at best. Not only did he leave Anna for extended periods of time while orating and traveling abroad, but he often brought back other women– usually white intellectual women he met in his travels– to live in their home. This latter action caused incessant rumors to spread wherever he was living at the time about Douglass’ potential affairs. It didn’t help matters that Anna, having once been a slave as well, was illiterate and therefore could not help Douglass with his writing career as could some of the other women he met and became close to later in life. Throughout this biography I couldn’t help but feel like poor Anna was dealt the short straw of the bunch, yet few people have recognized the struggle she must have endured sitting in the background of her husband’s life.
Overall, I really enjoyed this biography of Frederick Douglass and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about his life, abolitionism, or even woman’s rights during the Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States.
What are your thoughts on this biography of Frederick Douglass? Do you have a favorite biography in general? Any you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!