Frederick Douglass : Prophet of Freedom

by David W. Blight

Hardcover, 2018

Status

Available

Collection

Publication

New York : Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Description

"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"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member lisapeet
Finished this 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.

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.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom represents a remarkable work of research that not only captures the events of Douglass’s life, but brings to life the eras in which he lived. Through Douglass, Blight tells the story of nineteenth-century America, its triumphs and failures, and situates Douglass and his confidants within a literary tradition including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, and Goethe. Blight “seeks Douglass’s complexity in all its forms, but never sidesteps his essential radicalism in a search for heroes we can hold dear and in common” (pg. xvi).

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).
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LibraryThing member stevesmits
A magnificent biography about a magnifient man! One of the many insights gleaned from Blight's deep portrait of Douglass is how amazingly prescient Douglass's understanding of racism in white America was in his time and, lamentedly, extending still to ours. One simply cannot properly understand America today without knowing about the history of slavery and the long tail of overt racism that lingers after slavery's demise.… (more)

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