"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 historians 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"-- "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"--
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.
Contrary to some other biographers M.Blight doesn't fall in the 'context trap' when other authors can go in to deep, then we lose contact with the main subject and the tempo is lost as well. Definitely not here.
Up there with the best Biographies!!!
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).
First, the writing and depth of research are marvelous. Blight considers and presents detailed arguments about the finer points of Douglass’ life. Each chapter is replete with scores of endnotes for further reading.
Second, the topic is timely, especially to America. Race is still an issue that haunts us. The nineteenth century – Douglass’ century – was haunted by slavery. The twentieth century was haunted by racial inequity. The twenty-first century saw its first black president followed by an openly racist president. Douglass’ struggle continues. It continued immediately through Booker Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and it follows us to this day. Douglass’ yearning for freedom connects with the Hebrew prophets and connects today with all of those who question whether today’s social order is just and fair – whether America is living up to her grand ideals.
Third, this book is well-put together. Receiving the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for History, it has been exceptionally well-received by critics. It contains a pantheon of camera-pictures, artistic renderings, and daguerrotypes. Although we do not have any recordings of Douglass’ voice (as the phonograph was coming into existence just before Douglass’ death), copious presentations of the well-groomed Douglass alongside majestic texts of his speeches enliven the reader’s imagination to hear this great man contemplate a new American order in booming oratory. All of these elements conspire to bring Douglass alive again – and so to bring his struggle to speak freedom into existence to the fore.
I write this review on the day after Congressman Elijah Cummings’ death. Both Cummings and Douglass were born in Maryland. Both struggled for justice for their people and led journeys that expanded freedom’s call for all humans. Save for Lincoln, no one represented freedom’s call from slavery like Douglass did. His story, at least in my circles, is not told in all its grandiosity and particular splendor. This book communicates that in a way that allows us to see its common human struggle in contemporary life, all the way to Cummings’ struggle.
I also write in the context of the American South, where many freely intertwine American conservatism and evangelical Christianity. Often, it is claimed, liberalism is God-less and denigrates the writ of Christian Scripture. To that accusation, a great liberal voice – the deep, liberal, Republican voice of Frederick Douglass – answers. Liberalism – that is, the call for universal human freedom in its many forms – is historically grounded in the call of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Indeed, as the title of this book intimates, Douglass’ life represents a prophetic call. Though never a minister, he earned the title as “the Moses of American blacks.” Privileged white preachers who want to hold onto an old order need to remember that Scripture points us to the impassioned suffering of Jesus Christ for our freedom. Like many (all?) slaves, Douglass, unjustly whipped by tyrannical white men, shared such stripes, and by such stripes – by recognizing the holiness of their call for freedom – we as Americans and as humans are healed.
That’s why more people should read about Frederick Douglass, and that’s why this 900-page book deserves your time.