Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Introduction

Frederick Douglass's Narrative is no ordinary autobiography: it's the story of his life from the time he was born a slave to the time of his escape to freedom in the North.

That's right: Douglass fought against the heinous system of slavery and learned how to read and write, fought against the tyranny of amoral masters, and fled to freedom. It's one of the most thrilling, inspiring and powerful autobiographies that's out there.

Unsurprisingly, Narrative is bit more than an autobiography; it's also strong political text. When Douglass wrote this book in 1845, slavery was still legal in much of the United States. He became a public speaker and writer to try to stop it in its tracks, believing that if he showed people what slavery was really like, they would understand why it needed to be abolished.

And who better than a former slave to tell the truth about slavery? So even though Douglass aims to tell us his personal story, he never forgets the larger goal of abolishing slavery.

Douglass's Narrative was an instant success, selling over thirty-five thousand copies in the U.S. and Europe, and was quickly translated into both French and German. The world hadn't heard many real-life stories from former slaves, and Douglass' book struck a raw nerve and increased interest in abolition and righteous anger against slavery.

Douglass would eventually become the best-known abolitionist in the country (and the most famous Black American of his era) because not only does Douglass create a powerful, visceral, and stirring argument against slavery, but asks some hard philosophical questions about what freedom really is.

It's not an easy read, no. But it's one of the most important American texts ever written...and if you want to know about one of the most evil chapters in American history, it's an invaluable book to check out.

What is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass About and Why Should I Care?

Frederick Douglass's Narrative is about slavery—the despicable practice of owning human beings that was legal in the United States from colonial times through the end of the Civil War.

It's one thing to know that slavery existed as an abstract concept, and it's another to read a firsthand account of it. In Narrative, you get a front row seat to the horrors of this despicable practice, written about by a man who survived to tell the tale.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass paints a powerful picture of what it was like to be a slave, how the world looked from within chains, and what kind of place America was when "the land of the free" was only free for white people. A few books were written by ex-slaves in the 1840s and 1850s, but Frederick Douglass's narrative is one of the most important because Douglass addressed some hard hitting philosophical questions. One of his most pressing Q's is: what does it take for the human spirit to be free?

Douglass wants to show us that he made himself free, both in spirit and legally. Freedom isn't something that's given to us; it's something we each have to find for ourselves. And although Douglass had it a lot harder than most of us ever will, we each have something to learn from his perseverance and courage in search of his own freedom, and his refusal to rest before finding it.

One of the hardest lessons Douglass has to learn is that this battle never really stops. As long as anyone is a slave, Douglass knows he himself is not fully free. This is something that we can think about with regard to justice anywhere and anytime: can any of us be fully free if the least of us is oppressed?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Resources

Websites

Read Douglass's Narrative Online
The entire text of Douglass's narrative can be found here.

Biographical Sketch and Photographs
Information on Douglass at the PBS Africans in America website.

American Visionaries: Frederick Douglass
A website by the National Park Service on Douglass's place in American culture (with lots of good graphics).

Slave Narratives
A useful overview of other narratives written by former slaves around the time of Douglass's Narrative.

Movie or TV Productions

Biography
A biography of Frederick Douglass by A&E.

The Spirit of Frederick Douglass, 2008
Another biography of Douglass.

Historical Documents

Frederick Douglass at the Library of Congress
A great collection of Frederick Douglass's papers at the Library of Congress, everything from correspondence, speeches, and articles by Douglass and his contemporaries to obscure items like a draft of his autobiography, financial and legal papers, scrapbooks, and other miscellaneous items.

Video

James Earl Jones as Frederick Douglass
James Earl Jones reads one of Frederick Douglass's most famous speeches, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

C-SPAN American Writers Video Lessons
A set of video lessons put together by C-SPAN to go along with a TV series about Douglass's life.

Audio

Audio Book of Douglass's Narrative
The best audio book version of Douglass's Narrative you actually have to pay for.

Audio Book of Douglass's Narrative
But there's also a free version available at freeclassicaudiobooks.com.

Recordings of Frederick Douglass Speeches
Douglass speeches (performed by Fred Morsell, a modern actor).

Images

Douglass as an Old Man
This is the most famous image of Frederick Douglass, the dignified, white-haired old man.

Illustrations from Douglass's Final Autobiography
Douglass hiding from Covey in the woods, and being found by Sandy.