Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Definitely not a pleasure read by any means, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is nonetheless one of those books that will always stay important and valuable, even though the readers' reactions and perceptions of it may change.

In a nutshell: Douglass was a 19th-century African American slave who not only managed to escape the brutalization he endured under several masters (sometimes described rather graphically, as they should be), but also learned how to read and write, ultimately writing three (!) autobiographies and becoming a prominent member of the abolitionist movement.

There are a number of great literary elements in the Narrative that are worth discussing, but let's get one thing out of the way here - this is first and foremost a valuable historical artifact, one of the very few 19th-century first-hand slave stories in existence (I believe there were around seven written, though I may be wrong, but it is an incredibly small number compared to at least 60 million slaves who lost their lives at the time). As such, it does not go particularly well with 21-century literary mindset - it is too linear, way too descriptive and although a lot happens in a relatively short book, it never feels particularly exciting or page-turning. Don't let this distract you.

For it packs an incredibly strong punch, not just with the story itself (which should definitely be enough). It is not a black-and-white account by any means, as it manages to criticize certain attitudes of enslaved Negroes as well as show that slavery was not easy even for some white people to comprehend. It shows Douglass's journey from slavery to freedom as his acquisition of masculinity, as this is something that he never was allowed to have (although in this respect, I feel that Harriet Jacobs' narrative is far superior). His description of slavery transcends time and manages to speak for all the oppressed, even today, and it really makes the reader think about such issues as violence, disrespect, humanity and, of course, love.

Make sure you pick this up, especially if you've never read a slave narrative before. These narratives may be outdated and too simplistic for our perceptions of literature, but there is no reading, say, Alice Walker or Toni Morrison without them!


Jenn said...

It sounds like you really enjoyed the novel.

Wall-to-wall books said...

Great review! I love reading books about this time period. Some of them are very difficult reads, but like you said, very important to read. I have not read anything about him so I will definitely have to keep this one in mind!

Nikola said...

Hey guys, thanks for stopping by!!

@Jenn I wouldn't say I exactly enjoyed it (I mean, it's like saying you enjoyed watching Schindler's List), but it is easy to recognize it as both important and well written. I do recommend it.

@Wendy I'm so glad to be back on the blogosphere and see you! Thanks for stopping by!