The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written, as the title page announces, by Frederick Douglass himself and published in 1845. More than 250 years later, the narrative still remains a powerful work, both for the vivid window it provides on the practice of slavery in the American South and for its eloquent defense of human rights. The narrative recounts Douglass’s life story from his birth to his escape from slavery around the age of 20. It reads both as a personal testimony and a carefully crafted argument against slavery. As such, Douglass's autobiography makes a strong supplement to both history and literature classes.
Douglass’s narrative is an example of a captivity narrative, a common literary genre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Captivity narratives were generally written in first person and included accounts of abduction by slave catchers, pirates, Native Americans, and others. Beginning in the 18th century with accounts like Olaudah Equiano’s well-known 1789 autobiography, the slave narrative became the largest sub-genre of captivity narratives. Many slave narratives were criticized by white readers at the time of their publication as unrealistic fabrications. Some readers found the abuses described too horrifying to believe. Others insisted that former slaves could not be trusted to tell the truth about slavery. Frederick Douglass, writing largely for a white audience, does his very best to establish the legitimacy of his story by using, as far as possible, actual dates, names, and locations. Douglass’s narrative became the most widely read slave narrative in the antebellum United States and contributed to the momentum of the abolitionist movement in America. For more information about slave narratives, see gilderlehrman.org.
An essential component for most slave narratives was the slave’s freedom. Few slaves had the education, leisure time, and permission necessary to craft lengthy autobiographies. Though Douglass’s narrative builds to his escape from very early on, it does not provide details of the escape. While this omission deprives the reader of an exciting conclusion to the story, it was necessary for the safety of Douglass’s helpers and future runaway slaves. Douglass’s refusal to reveal his method of escape is a powerful reminder of the climate in which Douglass wrote in 1845. Even revealing as much as he did (his own name and the name of his master) forced Douglass to relocate to Britain for two years following the publication of his narrative. The details of his escape remained secret to the public until the publication of his updated autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881. For students interested in these details, a summary of his escape can be obtained at history.com.
Following his escape, Douglass went on to career as an abolitionist writer and orator, founding his own newspaper, The North Star. After the Civil War, he continued to fight for justice as a public servant. Students can find many of Douglass’s other writings, including letters and speeches, for supplemental activities.