Sunday, February 26, 2017

Frederick Douglass -- Author
 
Frederick was back home in Massachusetts at the beginning of the new year, 1844.  After a period of rest and reacquaintance with his wife and family he was once again active, touring Massachusetts as one of the Society’s premier abolitionist speakers.  The defense of slavery implied in the questions asked by members of the audiences was less strong than what he had recently encountered.  At no location was he threatened physically.  However, he was experiencing something new and it unsettled him.
 
At these recent conventions people without personal prejudice had taken to buttonholding him after meetings and whispering, Did he really expect shrewd New Englanders to believe that he had been a slave, brutalized in the manner he described: The masquerade was too transparent.  … He might convince people in the West that only five years ago he had been in the debased condition of which he spoke so eloquently, but not citizens of the Bay State.  They were attracted to him as a person and as a speaker, but if he offered himself as an example of the product of the slave system, he was actually helping the South.
 
They had also noticed, they pointed out, that he was never very clear about the place from which he had escaped, how he got away, who had been his owner, and the like.  This vagueness, coupled with the fact that he was in his own person a contradiction of much that he said, left even open-minded people with questions (Bontemps 93-94).
 
Now he understood completely why his white abolitionist friends had advised him not to be too “learned.”  Their fears were now being realized.  He was believed by many New Englanders to be an impostor.  He would not “put the plantation in his speech”; his pride would never permit that!  He would not put aside his intellectual gifts and eloquence.  They were a part of him as much as the experiences he recounted to illustrate the evils of slavery.  He would not be false to himself to appear genuine to his listeners.  Eventually, the solution to his problem occurred to him.
 
It was a daring thing to attempt.  Perhaps it was even reckless …. To answer those people who had begun to doubt his story, to silence the whispering that threatened to destroy his value as an abolitionist agent, he would throw caution away, he would put the full account in writing.  … He would write a book.  In his book he would tell the whole world just whose slave he had been, how he had squirmed and plotted in his chains, where and when he had escaped.  The only detail he would withhold would be the manner of his getaway.  … He would reveal everything and take his chances as a fugitive in Massachusetts.  But to disclose the maneuver by which he gave his owners the slip would be to close that particular gate to other slaves.  That he would not do (Bontemps 93-94).
 
The book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was published by the “Anti-Slavery Office” in Boston in June 1845 and was priced at fifty cents.  By fall, 4,500 copies had been sold in the United States.  Three European editions were subsequently published and in five years 30,000 copies had been sold to readers in Europe and America.
 
While he was writing his book, Frederick was tantalized with the thought of visiting England.  This coincided with what William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips were considering.  Douglass’s
 
word was too good to waste on Pendleton, Indiana, or even on Massachusetts; there was an international audience that should hear him.  … the immediate goal of the British was to get their American cousins to end slavery in North America.
 
Ties between abolitionists on opposite sides of the Atlantic had long been close, and the value of enabling people to see and hear a victim of the evil they were fighting was widely recognized.  Douglass was far from the first former slave or black man to appear on British platforms, but in 1845 he was the one that ardent antislavery people most wanted to have a look at and to hear (McFeely 177-118).
 
And, of course, his journey would place him beyond the grasp of slave catchers, who would now certainly know of his existence and location in Massachusetts.  With his book he had, in effect, challenged “the slave power to return him to bondage.  Could he depend on Massachusetts to shield him” (Bontemps 104)?  Neither he nor the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society could be certain of the answer.
 
 
Works cited:
 
Bontempts, Arna, Free at Last, the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971.  Print
 
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.