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This is a tremendously important book, and I am surprised (but I suppose I should not be) that I have not read it before. It is a fairly straightforward narrative of life as a slave; Douglass was permanently separated from his mother soon after birth, his father being either her owner or one of his white household, in Maryland in about 1818; he endured the casual brutality - both the physical violence and the constant psychological degradation of enslavement - for about twenty-five years before escaping to the north with his (free black) wife. The narrative is brief but gripping, and basically speaks for itself; everyone should read it.

Two details particularly caught my eye. The first is that Douglass had a fascination with, of all people, Daniel O'Cornell, and drew direct parallels between the situation of American slaves and of the Irish. I guess the two causes shared the buzz-word of 'emancipation'. Looked at from 170 years on, now that O'Cornell (somewhat unfairly) is seen as a rather conservative revolutionary by Irish standards, it's an interesting juxtaposition.

The second point is Douglass' culture shock on moving to the free states of the North and discovering, to his amazement, that white people who did not themselves own slaves were not necessarily poor. He had expected Northern society to reflect the white working class lifestyle of Baltimore (where he had persuaded white kids to teach him to read by giving them the bread he got from his rich owner). It's an interesting perspective both on how little slaves were allowed to know about the outside world, and on how slavery impoverished the whole society.

It is interesting to contrast this with Fanny Kemble's account of life on a Georgian plantation, written at almost exactly the same time (though published 25 years later). The life of slaves in Georgia was certainly worse than in Maryland, which means that Kemble is more circumstantially dramatic, but of course Douglass' account has the merits of being that of a participant rather than am observer. Still, the same subjects come up relentlessly in both: white men using slave women to bear their children, whipping them to a pulp when they did not comply, and denying their slaves any change of education. Both are essential reads.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 20th, 2011 07:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this excellent review; I haven't read it either I'm ashamed to say, and I'm downloading it from Project Gutenberg even as we speak. I'm goign to be snowed in for a few days and I look forward to reading it.
Feb. 20th, 2011 08:30 pm (UTC)
With regard to O'Connell, I remember being struck in the National Portrait Gallery in London by a big picture of the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, where O'Connell is one of the many delegates who can be individually identified. Wikipedia has an image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Anti-Slavery_Society_Convention_1840 where O'Connell is the topmost figure on the left-hand side. What struck me was how the history we learnt in Irish schools focused so much on the national struggle that the fact that O'Connell was supportive of the anti-slavery cause on the international level was completely ignored.
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