"The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era. As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery. Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely traveled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African-Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights. In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass's newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass's two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight's Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves"-- "Frederick Douglass was the most important African American of the nineteenth century and one of the most significant writers and orators in American history. David Blight's long-awaited authoritative biography of this great American is based in part on papers never seen by previous biographers. Douglass was born a slave and escaped at the age of twenty. He was fortunate to have learned to read as a boy, and he would develop this skill forbidden to slaves to become one of the great writers of his era. But first he would make his reputation as the most celebrated orator of the abolition movement. Drawing on personal experiences, including his dramatic escape, he developed a genius with words and held audiences spellbound for hours. He knew his Bible and, like Jeremiah, warned his nation about the moral corruption of slavery. Over his lifetime he wrote three versions of his autobiography, all of which are classics of the slave narrative and of American memoir. He also edited two newspapers and mastered the short-form political essay. This former slave met with Lincoln in the White House and rejoiced in the victory of emancipation. He would become a loyal Republican for the rest of his life, steadfast in his commitment even when challenged during Reconstruction by younger men who accused him of blind allegiance to his party. He saw the promise of Reconstruction dashed by the resistance of former slaveholders and their allies, and he fought this betrayal as eloquently and ferociously as he had fought slavery itself. As a lecturer, he likely reached more listeners than any American of his century. Douglass's personal life was complex: his children were financially dependent on him even as adults, although they maintained relationships of great mutual devotion. His second marriage, to a white woman, scandalized even some of his supporters. He lived with a modern dilemma of fame like few others of his era. Frederick Douglass was the African American founder of the nation's second republic, the one born of the Civil War. He is a towering figure deserving of this biography based on nearly a lifetime of research."--Dust jacket. "An acclaimed historian's definitive biography of the most important African-American figure of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who was to his century what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to the 20th century"-- Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to write three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and publish his own newspaper. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely traveled orator in the nation; he was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. Blight has drawn on new information, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass's newspapers, to the fascinating story of Douglass's life. -- adapted from publisher info.
I finally finished [Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom] thanks to a second library checkout and some recent time on a plane. And it was absolutely worth those 912 pages for the comprehensive overview not only of Douglass's fascinating life but of the period and the very fraught courses of abolition and reconstruction (both of which are commonly defined to sound like contained processes, and both of which were anything but). Blight paints a thorough picture of the politics of the day—not simple, to say the least, but really worth taking the complex, deep dive. I'd venture to say that there's really no way to drive home the nationwide (and beyond) horror of slavery and the multiple ways it was embedded in the culture, economy, and political and personal life of the day without going into that kind of depth, and even if Blight waxed a little purple here and there, it was overall a very nuanced, empirical examination of a hugely knotty movement. I came out of this enormously well informed about so many facets of abolition—just the factions within the Abolitionist movement alone were eye-opening—and I highly recommend this. Plus for once I'm right on the literary prize trend—this just won a Pulitzer and a Bancroft (and a Christopher) prize.
nb: I would very much like to see someone take on a biographical novel about his German friend/supporter/colleague/(OK, let's just say it) groupie Ottilie Assing—what a fabulous character, ripe for some good fictionalizing.
Blight writes, “Few Americans ever more publicly and vividly remade themselves over and over quite like Douglass, and few had deeper reasons to try” (pg. 16). In terms of these changes, Blight examines Douglass’s politics, writing, “Two contradictory themes run through all of Douglass’s rhetoric regarding the Republicans. He demanded adherence to abolitionist principles; the free-soil position, therefore, offered him little immediate satisfaction, even as it provided hope of thwarting slavery’s future. But simultaneously, he found it impossible to resist the appeal of a broad coalition that could discredit slavery” (pg. 274). In acknowledging the radicalism of Douglass, Blight writes, “During the 1850s, as Douglass moved toward at least open support of violent means, the two abolitionists spent many hours and days in each other’s company. As Douglass came within John Brown’s orbit of religious fervor and theories of violent resistance, Douglass listened even as he was sometimes repelled” (pg. 281). As the Civil War began, “Douglass seized the moment with a fervor as great as any other in his career. To him the central meaning of secession and the coming of the war was that it raised at least the possibility of ‘armed abolition,’ of mingling the cause of the slave and the rights of free black people with the life of the nation” (pg. 340). To that end, “Douglass advocated a gallant rush of black men into uniform; they were now shining symbols, liberating warriors who alone made suffering meaningful. Transforming this conflict into a black peoples’ war demanded such great leaps of faith, even as sober history in retrospect tells us that sweet reason, moral truth, and blood sacrifice by themselves have never defeated racism” (pg. 395-396).
Blight concludes, “Douglass was the prose poet of America’s and perhaps of a universal body politic; he searched for the human soul, envisioned through slavery and freedom in all their meanings… The problem of the twenty-first century is still some agonizingly enduring combination of legacies bleeding forward from slavery and color lines. Freedom in its infinite meanings remains humanity’s most universal aspiration. Douglass’s life, and especially his words, may forever serve as our watch-warnings in our unending search for the beautiful, needful thing” (pg. 764). The work encourages readers to engage with Douglass’s legacy and the nation’s failure to fully atone for the sins of slavery. All Americans should read this, though my only criticism is Blight’s use of “Rochesterites” to refer to the citizens of Rochester, NY, when the preferred nomenclature is “Rochesterian” (pg. 342).