Frederick Douglass, a slave in America until the age of 20, wrote three of the most highly regarded autobiographies of the 19th century, yet he only began learning to read and write when he turned 12 years old. After an early life of hardship and pain, Douglass escaped to the North to write three autobiographies, spaced decades apart, about his life as a slave and a freeman. The institution of slavery scarred him so deeply that he decided to dedicate his powers of speech and prose to fighting it. Douglass wrote three biographies about his life as a politician, slave, and abolitionist. However, the historical value of these works does not remain as important as the quality of the works themselves. Frederick Douglass’ writing deserves recognition in the canon of great American authors, because his work meets the chosen criteria for inclusion in a collection of important literature.
Douglass influenced many famous abolitionists with his literary works, and this impact, coupled with his desire to write an expose about oppression in America, makes him a winning candidate. Although his published works, mostly autobiographies, received much acclaim from abolitionists, this paper explores the quality of Douglass’s work from a literary standpoint. This paper also details the events shaping Douglass’s impressive life and writing career. By examining the prestigious “life and times” of this black author, the reader will recognize the widespread influence of Douglass’s writing on other antislavery writers, politics, and hence, the public. In a look at his first and greatest work, Narrative of the Life, the following paper will demonstrate why Frederick Douglass deserves a place in the hall of great American writers. To fully appreciate the impact of Douglass’s autobiographies, we must examine violent period in which he lived. Douglass, born in 1818, grew up as a slave on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation in eastern Maryland. At the time, abolitionist movements started gaining speed as popular parties in the North. In the North, pro-slavery white mobs attacked black communities in retaliation for their efforts. By the time Douglass escaped from slavery, in 1838, tensions ran high among abolitionists and slaveowners. Slaves published accounts of their harrowing escapes, and their lives in slavery, mainly with the help of ghostwriters.
Although abolitionists called for the total elimination of slavery in the South, racial segregation still occurred all over the United States. Blacks, freemen especially, found the task of finding a decent job overwhelming. White workers often did not want to work with blacks. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, allowed slaveowners to hunt the North for their escaped property. Under Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scot decision condoning the law as constitutional, a slave’s rights as a citizen became invalid because of the property clause. Reclaiming “stolen” property also lent itself to certain abuses. Slavehunters often kidnapped freed blacks under the premise of the law. However, the growing abolitionist movement provided room, board, and often the means for escape to hundreds of slaves. In contrast to the abolitionists, many blacks such as Garnet and Delany advocated a mass migration back to Africa. The Civil War became the ultimate debate for slavery, but not segregation. After the war in 1865, “black codes” still kept blacks from owning property, and therefore they became virtual slaves to their white employers. The KKK arose from the southern hatred and mistrust of blacks, terrorizing neighborhoods and lynching “uppity” blacks. Stormy times still lay ahead for blacks, and many aging abolitionists retired from their quests. A few blacks entered politics, but never enough to form a solid voting bloc in state or federal legislatures. The age of passive resistance and civil rights appeals approached. From a young age, Douglass fought for the freedom, and later rights, of his fellow blacks, and never saw the desired equality between races. Frederick Douglass’s background deserves recognition, because his background served as the basis for his autobiographies. The material contained in them represents the time in which he lived, and also his reactions and observations of the period. To understand why Douglass’s autobiographies merit reading, we need to examine his life and crusade against slavery in history, not just prose.
Born in 1818, Douglass’s grandmother care for him until he reached working age. Then began one of the worst experiences of his life. The woman in charge of him at Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, Aunt Katy, starved the small child, beat him, and verbally abused him. He very rarely saw his mother, who lived on another farm, and records omit the name of his father—possibly because his master was his father. His mother died in late 1825 or early 1826, and he hardly developed enough of a bond with his mother to miss her. The same year, Colonel Lloyd sent him to a more lenient household as a present to one of his relatives. Douglass grew into adolescence in Baltimore, and soon grew to hate slavery, because of his further education in the evils of the institution. Douglass read The Colombian Orator, a collection of anti-slavery speeches, and found them remarkably similar to his line of thought. After discovering in late 1831 that a group of white people, called abolitionists, shared his views, he resolved to escape. After catching Douglass reading, his new master demanded to know how taught him. Not only did educating a slave “unfit him to be a slave” (Autobiographies, 37) said his new master, the act also broke the law. Master Auld sent Douglass to a Negro breaker to quell his rebellious spirit. However, Douglass emerged from the transaction physically scarred but not mentally beaten.
The next few years he spent saving money for his escape in 1838. After finding several low key jobs in the North to support himself and his new wife, abolitionists invited Douglass to speak at a meeting. From here, Douglass launched into a career as an ardent abolitionist. He escaped farther north into NYC in 1839, and there he discovered The Liberator, an abolitionist weekly edited by William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison’s paper, and the speeches he heard him give at various churches, encouraged Douglass himself to speak out against the evils of slavery he experienced. To culminate a series of speeches about his past, he published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, in 1845. After the publishing of this book, Douglass became embroiled in the world of abolitionism, and he and Garrison split on several key issues, such as segregation. He left the US temporarily because of his fugitive status, and successfully campaigned in Ireland, England, and Scotland for his white counterparts back in America. By 1855, Douglass and Garrison were completely embittered and battled over religion, rights, and racial supremacy. During this time, he founded and edited several antislavery newspapers and wrote a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, and also “The Heroic Slave”, a fictional novella based on a slave uprising. Twenty-five years later, he published yet another autobiography, Life and Times. He involved himself in the world of politics as a minister to Haiti, and marshal and recorder of Washington, D.C. He died in 1895, 11 years after marrying a white woman to show his support of interracial marriages. Perhaps this last event shows his dedication to the idea of harmony among all men. Frederick Douglass’s impact upon the antislavery movement in America and abroad, remains his crowning achievement. However, he accomplished this feat through speeches which relied on, or later formed part of his books.
Many famous writer’s heard Douglass speak. Among them, Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe encouraged the antislavery and civil rights movement through writing’s of their own. His influence also extended to such audience members as the Transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His “full, rich, sonorous deep tones” (McFeely, 371) poured out against falsehoods. Indeed, Douglass’s voice and skill as an orator encouraged many members of his audiences to new heights against slavery. “To no man, did the people more widely, no more earnestly say, ‘Tell me thy thought!’ ” (Introduction, 132). His literary style resembles greatly the traditional spoken history of black slaves. “His crisp 114-page telling of his story in Narrative of the Life …grasped the imagination of American readers…” (McFeely, 180), says critic William L. Andrews. The realistic passages of the narrative contain the same biting wit found in his most famous speeches. Susan B. Anthony declared Douglass “majestic in his wrath, as with keen wit, satire, and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery” (“Douglass, 1838”). He occasionally uses the rhetoric to cause the reader to reflect upon key points he wishes to make. As he grew older, Douglass’s life and personality grew more complex, and so did his autobiographies.
The “far more ambiguous” (McFeely, 180) My Bondage and My Freedom underscores his changing style into one of a more subdued nature. By all means, time did not subdue his vehement attitude towards the oppression of blacks. At one speech, the white- haired Douglass dropped the prepared oratory, and confronted hecklers with grand rhetoric. In these rough times, Douglass ceaselessly campaigned for the rights of the oppressed, dying before giving a speech against the injustices of the new South. He embraced wholeheartedly the most controversial subject of his era in the and encountered resistance against his attempts to attain a greater respect for his race as humans. Frederick Douglass’s fight for civil rights does not affect his bid for the American canon. It merely serves as a backdrop to display the events affecting his writing. Inclusion in the canon relies—or, should rely— solely on the literary merit, not on the political or historical weight of the author. A recent revision of the American canon received much criticism from traditionalists. The basis of their argument alleges “that the project [to revise the American canon] takes an affirmative action approach to literature” (Gordon). They complain the new editors include authors because of their race, not the quality of their work.
To traditionalists, the past masters represent the necessary reading for college students. The present canon includes such authors as Shakespeare, Homer, Machiavelli, and Dante. While “these works possess a timeless greatness that transcends issues of race, color, or gender” (Reno), the current canon consists mainly of white, European males. In fresh look at American authors, a team of professors revised the canon to include more Americans they believe deserve credit. The traditionalists decry this act as political correctness, while the editors defend the quality of their work. The canon still contains many of the past masters, but also outlines the works of more women, blacks, Latinos, and native Americans. A literature professor at Trinity college, and part of the team which selected the works, said, “…If conservative critics would get away from their ideological preconceptions and just read the texts, they would be persuaded that the Heath selections are worthy” (Gordon). However, the argument still rages over whether the American canon should include more than “15 dead white guys and Emily Dickinson” (Gordon). Although traditionalists question the worthiness of the new canon authors, the professors chose the authors because of their works, not because of their appeal to minorities. By deeming the prose or poetry worthy of inclusion in the canon, the team “tells readers, in effect: This is a classic” (Gordon). To classify a work as one of great literary importance, we must first examine the elements required for a novel of literary, even historical, significance. The criteria for all American literature should include the three following items. Chosen as the most important by the researcher, these criteria do not necessarily reflect the views of all critics regarding order of importance.
However, any author’s work considered for inclusion in the American literature canon must fulfill these three extremely important criteria. The need for a timeless theme in a canon work reflects the rapid change occurring in American society. The survival of the book as an important work relies heavily on the theme’s importance and relevance independent of America’s changing culture. If society changes, the work’s theme should still apply elsewhere, even if the original object of the theme no longer has a place in our society. The purpose of a novel remains the same: to inform the reader, and enlighten him about an important part of life. The societal impact of the novel remains a direct reflection of the importance of the work at the time. It measures the success of the author in conveying his information and theme to the reader. At the least, the author’s work should affect the way members of a society think after reading the book. The quality of the thought in the book reflects the originality of the subject matter. With original subject matter comes the creative thought accompanying the new material. Creative new ideas concerning old subjects also qualify an author.
The core of this criterion remains the insightfulness of the author into the theme he chooses. Lasting themes, creative presentation of subject matter pertaining to the themes, and impact qualify an author’s works for inclusion in the American canon of literature. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life, qualifies the author for a place in the canon because it contains a timeless theme, original subject matter, and impacted the public at the time of its writing. However, both of Douglass’s first two autobiographies deserve recognition as works of literary importance. However, his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, weakens when compared to the chosen criteria. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life also contains some weak points, but still warrants a place in the hall of great American literature. Narrative of the Life appears rudimentary when first compared to his next autobiography, yet it contains all the basic seeds of the other. Douglass furthered his education greatly during the ten years between the writing of the two books, yet the sophistication apparent in the second autobiography does little to boost its importance.
The theme, subject matter, and impact of both works resemble each other too closely for the second to be considered a wholly original and remarkable work, because the initial creativity required for the first autobiography hardly compares to the second. Douglass reserves some extra details for the second book, but his creativity and subject matter remain mostly the same. In Narrative of the Life, Douglass displays a true talent for conveying his theme, and the subject matter concerning the terrible effects of oppression. His recycled theme in My Bondage and My Freedom lowers the book’s standing when compared to his first autobiography, although the theme remains as relevant, important, and timeless. The creative ideas concerning the subject of slavery created a massive impact, as briefly described before in the historical section of this paper. Both autobiographies caused awakenings to the plight of oppressed slaves, but the first’s impact more greatly affected the awareness of the public. With his first autobiography, Frederick Douglass touches upon three criteria of a canon work: a lasting theme, creative subject matter, and societal impact. Although his second autobiography deserves recognition, it lacks the fundamental originality of theme and subject matter of the first, and therefore does NOT deserve a place in the canon of great American literature. Frederick Douglass used his autobiographies as his main method of conveying his ideas to the public. However, he also wrote one novella, titled “The Heroic Slave”, which remains a mystery. Critics do not mention this work, and so probably disregard or overlook it because of it’s relative obscurity. Each autobiography brought the reader up to speed with the author’s life until the time of printing.
Hence, each one stands as a unique work. Even the retelling of certain events take on a different hue throughout the “editions” of his life.. The first of his autobiographies, Narrative of the Life, gives an impression of realism and naturalism. “I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master.” (Narrative, 72) This quote demonstrates the straightforward, yet biting style in this autobiography. William Lloyd Garrison, before becoming embittered with Douglass, offered this opinion of the writer as he first read from his works. “I shall never forget his first speech at the convention—…and the applause which followed from beginning to the end of his felicitous remarks” (Autobiographies, Preface, 3). As Garrison notices, Douglass hardly minces words in his works, and wastes no letters expressing his thoughts. Douglass allows his pen to flow freely when writing about the injustice of slavery’s oppressive cruelty, yet does not stress the cruelties themselves as greatly as their effects. In My Bondage and My Freedom, the author fully describes the injustices and includes more realistic passages. He also retains the somewhat naturalistic arguments against the dehumanizing effects of slavery “Our destiny was now to be fixed for life, and we had no more voice in the decision of the question, than the oxen and cows that stood chewing at the hay.” (Bondage, 237-238) Again the base of naturalism in the book appears evident.
The third autobiography, Life and Times, appears as a gloating book reviewing Frederick Douglass’s successes in life. However, he still repeats the first years of his life as a reminder of his humble roots. “Life and Times is the memoir of a famous man relishing his honors while smarting from those denied him” (McFeely, 7). Douglass smugly recalls all his political endeavors, and the mood of the book ends in one of elation. However, the author, as always, informs the reader with a straightforward style which pervades the book. This direct style becomes most apparent in his work Narrative of the Life, but nevertheless lies in all his autobiographies. The greatness of his first autobiography becomes apparent when comparing the book to the criteria. Of all his works, this short novel of his early life stands out as a classic deserving of a place in the canon. Douglass’s new subject matter, a true first hand account of slavery and its consequences, strikes the reader deeper than a fictional account of such events because of its depth of understanding. Although other slaves published accounts of their slavery, oppression, and escapes, Douglass stands out as the first to write his own story. Many other black writers presented their subject matter through a ghost writer, losing the edge of first hand accounts. Because of the quality of the content, some abolitionists, and many slaveowners, refused to believe the validity of the experiences of the man in the slim novel. However, the autobiography came authenticated with a “Preface” by Garrison, and a “Letter” by Wendell Philips. The subject matter remains fascinating.
Douglass’s lengthy passages about the psychological effects of slavery reflect years of careful thought and observation. His blunt descriptions of the negative repercussions of slavery upon the slaveholder’s minds created a stir against the animal nature and “savage barbarity” (30) which he describes. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon (37). This continuing observance of the distortion of innocents provides a fresh look at people previously passed off as mean spirited. The idea that slavery transformed the master from good to evil and not vice versa also places the blame on the institution, not the owners. Douglass’s new subject matter, the mental side effects of slavery, gives the reader “food for thought”. The author causes the reader to think about the true cause of the cruelty inherent in slavery. He forces this new thought upon the reader because of his presentation of new ideas. After helping Douglass publish his first autobiography, abolitionists such as Wendell Philips urged the public “to hate slavery” (“Letter”, 11), but not the slaveowner.
Pushing his point across, Douglass reinforces his naturalistic idea that the environment of oppression corrupts even kindly masters. With other examples of kindly masters, Douglass demonstrates how the slave represents an excuse to wield terrible power. The idea that humans jump at the chance to hurt, or dominate someone remains a key part of his stand against slavery in the book. He uses examples from his own life to prove each point about the institution’s corruption. A fugitive at the time, Douglass risked his life to present the true nature and name of the villains and oppressors. The sacrifice of his security in order to present the facts makes him a courageous writer. Douglass not only presents the names of his old masters, but the traits which slavery caused in them. His most important contribution to the subject of slavery lies in his evaluation of oppression’s psychological effects. He presents this new subject matter with a creativity and originality deserving inclusion in the American canon. Although My Bondage and My Freedom elaborates upon the subject matter of the first autobiography, it hardly contains any new material. The originality of his observations of the effects of slavery upon the owners loses the luster of Narrative of the Life. Grasping the imagination of the reader, Douglass firmly walks the audience through his life, mind, and ideas.
The subject matter, his life and views of slavery’s corruption, remains basically the same. Although the critic William L. Andrews complains Douglass’s second autobiography “has not been fully appreciated” (McFeely, 180), the first book destroys the intended importance of the second’s subject matter. In the first book, Douglass offers examples of how the slaveholders become corrupted by their own institution, and leaves the reader to devise his own conclusion. “I have an abundance of such illustrations of the same principle, drawn from my own observation, but think the cases I have cited sufficient” (Autobiographies, 68). He leaves the reader, in this instance, to imagine more ways in which the master unintentionally gives the slave a false view of freedom. He has already presented the idea in his first biography that slavery corrupts those involved. Douglass’s verbiage becomes apparent when reading the same section in his second autobiography. He selects several more instances with which to convince the reader, as if his audience has lost faith in his powers of persuasion. His insistence that “my master was my father” (Autobiographies, 15) loses power in the second autobiography. However short the first account, the second aspires to great lengths. The true origin of his father becomes shrouded, and he uses this mystery to again explain the corruption of slaveowners who keep the identity of slaves from them. Both accounts reveal the loss of identity which dehumanizes the slave as well as the owner. However, the essential ideas he presents still remain the same in My Bondage and My Freedom, although smoothed over by slightly different situations.
The presentation of the same subject matter, and its lack of creativity and originality downgrade the standing of this book. My Bondage and My Freedom forfeits a place in the canon of American literature because of its lack of new ideas, especially because Douglass presents no new thoughts upon one of his own previous ideas. Douglass’s unique thoughts about the institution of slavery explain why Narrative of the Life sold 30,000 copies in five years, and created a massive impact on American society. The popularity of the book directly expresses the widespread acceptance of its ideas. The author exposed slavery’s inherent ability to corrupt those associated with it. He blamed the institution, not its founders. This new approach gained favor among the public, and “…he was the one that people most wanted to have a look at and to hear” (McFeely, 118). As an upstart in the field of abolitionists, his new ideas impacted the platform of many campaigners who previously attacked the slaveowners as barbaric. Eager to hear his ideas, many crowds endured standing room only crowds when Douglass read from his first autobiography at meetings. Douglass deserves credit for the massive change in the public movement from fighting other humans to fighting an institution’s corruption.
Five years after the publication of Narrative of the Life, Harriet Beecher Stowe—a good friend of Douglass—also blamed the evils of the institution in her fictional book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An event remarkably similar to one which Douglass describes in his autobiography happens to the title character. Douglass and Uncle Tom’s usually kind owners become so desperate for money, they sell both men down river, to places where the oppression worsens every day. “…I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery” (Autobiographies 58). Douglass recounts how his master could not keep him any longer. Both events happen because of slavery’s corrupting qualities. Also, both books emphasize the inevitability of such corruption occurring. Douglass and St. Clare, a slaveowner in the novel, speak out against “the thing itself” (“Stowe”). Although Stowe’s work drew much more attention from the general public, the ideas she expressed came directly from Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. His creative take on the psychological effects of slavery also influenced other writers. After publishing Narrative of the Life, the parents of the Mark Twain’s wife, Livy Langdon, approached him. The book’s ideas appealed to them, and the wealthy Langdons helped fund Douglass’s trip abroad. Upon returning, Douglass and Twain became acquaintances, and for the next three decades, shared ideas. During this time, Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his most famous work. The book expressed Twain’s reluctance to believe our oppression of blacks stopped after the Civil War. In addition to fueling the growing abolitionist movement, Douglass changed the way many other Americans, including writers, thought. Reflected in the author’s of the time, Narrative of the Life pioneered a new humanitarian movement against slavery itself; his work impacted society’s actions and way of thinking.
My Bondage and My Freedom also impacted society, though not as heavily as his first autobiography. As mention before, book sales reflect the acceptance of the ideas of the book. However, Douglass’s subject matter already gained recognition with his first autobiography, leaving a smaller fresh audience for his second novel. My Bondage and My Freedom sold 15,000 copies with the first two months (“Chronology”), but sales dropped off, presumably because the public discovered the similarity between the two novels. The outrage from slaveholders which accompanied the first autobiography and lead to his escape abroad, was conspicuously absent. This seems strange, considering how heavily Douglass’s friends promoted his second autobiography. “Liberty and Slavery Contrasted! Ready August 15. MY BONDAGE AND MY FREEDOM By Frederick Douglass” (Note on the texts), screamed a front page ad in Norton’s Literary Gazette. Despite the hype, Douglass’s book sold modestly, and foreign editions lost money. With his ideas already taken root, the public basically complimented Douglass on the success of his first autobiography. The first explained Douglass’s viewpoints and ideas so well that his second could hardly make an improvement or impact. The author himself said, “…I am busy at work on my book. It is more of a job than at first I supposed it would be and I am beginning to be weary of it…” (Notes on the Texts). Just as Douglass grows “weary”, so does his writing. The ideas are worn out by the first book but still excellent ideas. Because of his persistence in writing a similar autobiography, Douglass’s impact from My Bondage and My Freedom remains, at best, one upon a loyal audience willing to hear his “weary” ideas again. The greatest element contained in Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies remains his timeless theme about man’s need for freedom.
Douglass’s portrayal of oppression applies regardless of slavery’s disappearance from American society. This endures as the most important criterion for consideration of his work for the canon, because many people in America still feel repressed, if not oppressed. The desire for freedom consumes all the slaves in Narrative of the Life and My Bondage and My Freedom. The inspiring thought that all people deserve, and can attain freedom remains timeless. Puritans established our country because they needed to escape from religious oppression in Europe. As a country based on freedom from persecution, this theme runs to the very foundation of who we are as Americans. Our Constitution contains clauses which state our rights to various freedoms. Douglass’s use of this theme demonstrates his savvy connection to the American dream. Oppressed people everywhere read his autobiographies and delved into the mind of a man constantly looking towards his freedom. Douglass often discusses how wretched he becomes at the thought of “being a slave for life” (Autobiographies, 234). Readers recognize the overall theme of man’s desire for freedom even when Douglass barely reached his grandmother’s knee. When he heard the slaves sing of a better place, his heart realized that freedom remained the thing most dear to a slave. “I am going away to the Great House Farm! O, yea! O, yea! O!” (23), echoed the yearning for freedom in a place far away from oppression and suffering. This hope for freedom typifies the path Douglass’s theme takes in both Narrative of the Life and My Bondage and My Freedom.
Their greatest aspiration always seems out of reach, but the desire for freedom continues to burn inside them. Douglass enforces his point that even children hold the inherent craving for freedom. He describes his wildly free romps through nature as a small child, before his master called him to work in the fields. After hearing the news of his trade to Hugh Auld, Douglass rejoices at the smallest bit of extra freedom he receives. I left that plantation with inexpressible joy. I shall never forget the ecstasy with which I received the intelligence from my friend, Miss Lucretia, that my old master had determined to let me go to Baltimore to live with Mr. Hugh Auld… (Autobiographies, 209). Douglass’s passage about how much freedom meant to him adds weight to the theme. Also, the unasked rhetorical question, “How much would you value freedom if you were a slave?” comes to mind when reading this passage and others which emphasize his intrinsic desire for freedom. This theme repeats itself so much throughout both novels, the reader must feel the value attached to freedom by all the slaves in the novel. The timelessness of the theme becomes apparent when viewing our society’s value of freedom today. The stormy period of adolescence holds the same goal as Douglass’s escape to the North; it determines the boundaries of our freedom, and where we choose to take our lives. The freedom of choice in the direction of our lives remains important to all Americans, and as long as freedom rings from America, Douglass’s books remain applicable in today’s society.
The fight against slavery basically ended after the Civil War, but our need for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness continues to this day. Although slavery vanished in America, we still hold such desired freedoms freedom of religion and freedom to vote in a democracy. Douglass’s theme of freedom in Narrative of the Life and My Bondage and My Freedom remains as relevant today as a century ago. Freedom’s inherent presence in America makes Frederick Douglass’s theme timeless and canon-worthy. Frederick Douglass’s desire for freedom perhaps lead him to write an expose about slavery. With his abrasive style, Douglass wrote three autobiographies criticizing slavery as an institution which bred corrupt slaveowners. His works deserve credit not only for their historical value, but also for their literary worth. “Read now only secondarily for what they tell us about slavery, his Narrative of the Life, and My Bondage and My Freedom have earned the regard of critics” (McFeely, 115) In the first two of his autobiographies, Douglass uses a timeless theme to convey a slave’s sense of oppression. This former slave grew up under the weight of cruelties which stagger the reader, but his inherent sense of freedom remains intact. The impact of his presentation of the theme makes a mark upon history.
His psychological evaluation of slavery in his works caused a great many people to change their ways of thinking and attack “the thing itself.” By presenting a work which includes these facets, Douglass deserves a place in the canon. Some may maintain that political correctness remains the true reason his inclusion for his inclusion. However, this paper finds Douglass a writer of great literary importance based on the criteria of theme, impact, and originality of subject matter. With his autobiographies, Douglass escaped the brand of the runaway slave. He scoffed at the idea of being caught by including the names of his masters, and the circumstances of his escape. Douglass overcomes the stigma of his past incarceration through a demonstration of his freedom of speech. By writing the events of his past, he obtains his true freedom from the institution of slavery. Frederick Douglass finally outran the effects of slavery upon his life by proving he holds a place in the canon alongside other great American writers