On The Autobiographical Writings of Frederick Douglass by Peter Ripley
In reading Peter Ripley’s critical essay “The Autobiographical Writings of Frederick Douglass,” Ripley makes the claim that Douglass’ The Narrative is his “first important writing and, in many ways, his most significant” (146). This significance of which Ripley speaks is touched on at the very beginning of the essay when Ripley states that “The Narrative signaled Douglass’ emergence as a committed abolitionist and suggests his developing intellectual skills during those early years of freedom” (135). Ripley begins his essay by recounting the first public lecture given by Douglass and how he quickly evolved from giving hesitant lectures mainly centering around personal anecdotes to ones that “included interpretation and analysis of slavery, abolition, and other reform movements” (136). Ripley attributes Douglass’ increased knowledge and comfort on the lecture circuit to his being “Ambitious and intellectually curious…reading reform literature, participating in discussions and absorbing the lectures of his associates” (136).
The strengths of Ripley’s argument lie in the historical examples he gives of Douglass’ transition from a former slave, to a timid lecturer, and finally to a public intellectual and confident abolitionist. Ripley begins this journey by describing Douglass’ as what was termed the “awfull example” (136), meaning that Douglass had not been a free man for long and communicated his personal experiences “in a manner not yet free of ‘plantation dialect’” (136). Ripley goes on to recount Douglass’ decision to “write and publish his slave experiences, ‘giving names…and places and dates’” (136) in order to combat some of the rumors at the time that Douglass had not actually been a slave and did not experience the things his lectures touched upon. The development of Douglass’ intellectual prowess, a main theme Ripley mentions as being directly related to his publication of The Narrative, was first exemplified by Ripley in the account of Douglass’ using his intellectual honesty and adherence to true experience to bait one of his foremost critics into settling the two main rumors surrounding his credentials. Upon the publication of The Narrative, A.C.C. Thompson wrote that he had known “the recent slave by the name of Frederick Bailey” (138), which served to disprove the rumor that Douglass was not a former slave. Douglass then addressed Thompson’s claim that he couldn’t have written The Narrative by describing his time with a slave-breaker who “had so broken his spirit he could not have written The Narrative” (139), but that “Frederick Douglass the freeman, is a very different person from Frederick Bailey” (139). This last point, addressing Thompson’s claim as well as using Thompson’s own honest reaction served to suggest “the debilitating qualities of slavery and the rejuvenation that accompanied liberation” (139). Ripley further discusses The Narrative’s essential role in aiding Douglass’ intellectual education by stating that is was an “important indicator of Douglass’ growth and maturity” (143). Ripley highlights this growth by stating “To Garrisonians…it suggested that Douglass could not be managed…he was moving beyond the intellectual and social posture of ‘exslave’ Garrisonian lecturer and was maturing into a capable, independent, and strong-willed reformer” (143). Ripley goes on to state that the controversy that surrounded The Narrative “established Douglass as an exslave abolitionist who could speak with conviction born of experience” (143).
In looking at the weaknesses of Ripley’s argument, and to an extent his essay in general, the most blatant weakness the reader is likely to notice is the lack of clarity and organization in some parts of the essay. If it is correct that Ripley’s central thesis is along the lines of: The Narrative is Douglass’ most important work because it “underscored Douglass’ increasing intellectual skills as well as his independence and self confidence” (146), then there seem to be quite a few sections of the essay that do not directly relate to this central thesis. The most striking of these flaws in organization occur when Ripley is discussing Douglass’ newfound celebrity and his relationships with his publisher and fellow abolitionists. One example of this disconnect with the central thesis is “Other incidents on the tour irritated some Garrisonians and hinted that Douglass was slipping from the fold” (142). This quote, pulled from a portion of the essay filled with seemingly irrelevant or mildly-relevant details with respect to the discussion of Douglass’ intellectual progression as a result of The Narrative serve to highlight some of the weaknesses in Ripley’s essay. This is not to say that Ripley’s argument is weak. In fact, the opposite is true as Ripley gives sufficient evidence for his central claim that the publication of, and subsequent touring about, The Narrative contributed to Douglass’ intellectual independence and strength in the realm of abolition and reform. However, information such as “As a parting gift, the antislavery women of Edinburgh gave Garrison a silver tea service” (142), seems barely relevant to the central idea of the essay. It is understood that Douglass’ experiences with his former abolitionist colleagues and his publisher all shaped who he was and served as documentation that a change had occurred, however it seems to be a stretch to relate that to his intellectual evolution regarding his authorship of The Narrative. Yet another weakness that can be found along the lines of clarity is that in the last couple of pages of Ripley’s essay he seems to be listing various newspapers and their respective responses and or reviews of The Narrative. “Even reviewers…Littel’s Living Age…London League…The Lynn Pioneer...The Belfast Northern Whig…the Herald of Freedom” (144-146). While this serves as a testament to Douglass’ success and obvious honest and moving portrait of the horrific institution of American slavery, the way in which Ripley includes these makes it seem like little more than a list of reviews with no real connection to his main thesis.