Title: 'Writing in the Spaces Left': Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass



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Douglass achieves the ability to write in a state of fluidity, of acknowledged heteroglossia, always maneuvering to fit himself into "the spaces left" by his white enslavers. An essential part of this process of learning to write is the act of copying. As Douglass explains:
I then commenced and continued copying the Italics in Webster's Spelling Book, until I would make them all without looking at the book. By this time, my little Master Thomas had gone to school and learned how to write, and had written over a number of copying books. These had been brought home, and shown to some of our near neighbors, and then laid aside. My mistress used to go to class meeting at Wilk Street meeting-house every Monday afternoon, and leave me to take care of the house. When left thus, I used to spend the time in writing in the spaces left in Master Thomas's copy-book, copying what he had written. I continued to do this until I could write in a hand very similar to Master Thomas. Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write.(281)
In many ways, Douglass's acquisition of literacy is a series of acts of resistance, because his master and the southern legal code specifically say he shouldn't be taught to read or write. But at the same time that Douglass opposes Auld, he is also copying his young master's hand, imitating his style, writing "in a hand very similar to Master Thomas." Douglass's handwriting, the unique mark of literacy, always bears the trace of his unwitting teachers and enslavers.
Douglass's ephemeral acts of writing on the wall with chalk call forth the image of Christ writing in the sand in the gospel of St. John. In this story Christ revises the written law which condemns the woman adulterer, challenging those among her without sin to throw the first stone. In doing so, Christ privileges the spirit of the law over the written word of the law, and he does so by writing with his finger in the dust, the authority of which is as ephemeral as the spoken word. Christ explains that "the written word kills but the spirit gives life (2 Corinthians, 3.1-6).
It is precisely this ability to differentiate between the spirit and the word, between literacy and orality, which guides Frederick Douglass to his most effective means of coming to ideological consciousness and of transcending the experience of slavery. The first step in this experience of relative freedom involves Douglass's repeated critique of the limitations of Christian literacy which illustrates a kind of "second sight" which allows him to step outside the bounds of slave culture to critique literacy as a system of representation by showing how thoroughly literacy has been corrupted by slavery's perpetuation of a "system of fraud" (301). A constant strain throughout the narrative reminds the reader that slavery corrupts language to such an extent that it frequently has little representative capacity or any connection to truth or reality. Words have lost their power in a culture which allows hypocritical slavemasters to manipulate language to justify acts of oppression.
A specific case of slavery's corruption of language is religious literacy. Particularly in his Appendix, Douglass argues that religious doctrine uses the text of the Bible as a means of hiding reality, of misrepresenting truth. Religion, particularly the text of Scripture, "is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,--a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,--a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,--and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection" (301). Calling the South a land of Christianity is, for Douglass, "the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels, ... I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me" (326).3 Douglass can offer this critique because his own "literateness" has matured to the point where he can step "outside the circle" of southern religious culture in order to "read" it truthfully and comment on its failings. Steven Mailloux argues that Douglass's identity as an escaped slave provides him a different locus of interpretation than those outside or inside the circle of slavery because his acts of reading slavery occur from both positions simultaneously. "Douglass does identify two positions from which the slave songs can be read: from inside the slave's experience and from outside that viewpoint. ... However, Douglass actually represents himself as occupying a third position which is neither insider nor outsider but a combination of the two ... Only interpreters occupying the subject position of fugitive slave can correctly read the slave's song" (9-10). To develop further along the literacy continuum, one needs the distance that Douglass has from this experience to provide an authoritative reading.
The section of the narrative which tells the story of Douglass's captivity on Mr. Covey's farm epitomizes all that is wrong with slavery and the means by which orality can provide some measure of freedom from an oppressive reality in a way that literacy has failed to do up until this point. Covey, to whom Douglass is sent to be "broken in," has a reputation of extreme hypocrisy: he is "a professor of religion--a pious soul, a member and a class leader in the Methodist church" (289) and a most savage master. "Mr. Covey's forte consisted in his power to deceive. His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deception. Everything he possessed in the shape of learning of religion, he made conform to his disposition to deceive" (292). Covey is thus the human embodiment of hypocrisy, the master of slavery's capacity for misrepresentation and fraud.
While in Covey's possession, when "made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery" (293), Douglass describes himself as least human and most human; in the confines of one chapter he changes from being a "brute" to a "man," transcending from the lowest moments of his enslavement to the highest. Douglass claims of his time on Covey's plantation: "My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man was transformed into a brute" (293). When Douglass equates his humanity with, among other things, his desire to read, he seems to reinforce the literacy-humanity connection explored earlier by Henry Louis Gates, which equated a lack of "intellect" with sub-human status. But while in Covey's possession Douglass reasserts his humanity through two experiences which draw on an oral and spiritual tradition. In the first, Douglass spends a Sunday on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay watching the sailboats and speaks out loud to no one but himself and God: "[T]here, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships" (293). Douglass expresses his utmost grief to the open sea, an oral truth which seems to allow him to transcend his pain and realize that "[t]here is a better day coming" (294). This empowering experience of spirituality prepares Douglass for the following scene, when he becomes immune to Covey's inhuman treatment. Douglass describes this as the time when "the slave was made a man" (294).
After fleeing from a particularly horrible beating by Covey, Douglass is given, by his friend Sandy Jenkins, "a certain root, which if I should take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man to whip me" (297). Douglass's belief in the power of the root seems to represent his acknowledgement of African folklore, which, like his apostrophe to the sea, brings him closest to a sense of freedom and humanity than he has ever had as a slave. It empowers him to act, to fight back against Covey in an epic battle:
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood ... and inspired within me a determination to be free. He can only understand the deep satisfaction I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom ... and I now resolved that, however long I remained a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.(298-299)
In a comparison to Christ's resurrection from the dead, Douglass achieves from the root a kind of spiritual transcendence. Moreover, his ability to separate the fact from the name of slavery illustrates his power to disregard the name given to him by the institution of slavery and to define himself. He relies on his own internal sense of reality to name his world, which critic Lucinda H. MacKethan reminds us is a metaphor for the state of being free and of "having control ... over his own identity" (66). He gains this strength from a belief in the African "root" of his identity as opposed to accepting the definition of his white enslaver. In this, he acknowledges what Dolan Hubbard calls a "doubly rich heritage ... [by converting] a tension between black oral tradition and Judeo-Christian texts of moral absolutes" into a new mode of action (19). In this syncretic moment lies his ultimate experience of freedom. As Gayl Jones writes, "to liberate their voices from the often tyrannic frame of another's outlook, many world literatures look to their own folklores, and oral modes for forms, themes, tastes, conceptions of symmetry, time spaces, detail and human values" (192). Douglass is most liberated from Covey's tyranny when he can metaphorically acknowledge the "root" of his African identity, which combines with his faith in a Western Christian tradition to give him strength.
Despite all its associations with freedom, literacy alone doesn't lead to the turning point in Douglass's identity, nor does it provide him the means to assert his own reality and his own humanity. But Douglass's narrative does act to reevaluate the power and function of orality in his life as a slave as the root episode illustrates. Moreover, Douglass's discussion of the songs of slavery early in the narrative anticipates the power of orality to transcend the pain of oppression and to convey truthfully the human condition of slavery, "revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness" (262). Upon hearing the sounds of slave songs, Douglass reinforces the ability of orality to capture the deepest emotions and the reality of experience when he claims that "I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy could do. ... Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains" (263). Even as he himself writes a "testimony against slavery," Douglass acknowledges the strengths and limitations of both the written word and the power of song, and he seeks to combine them. Simply remembering the sounds of these songs infuses Douglass's writing with an eloquence unmatched in the narrative:
To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. These songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,--and if he is not impressed, it will be because there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.(262)
In interpreting the meaning of these songs, Douglass uses the spatial metaphor of being "within the circle" of slavery, which he differentiates from the experience of listening to the slave songs outside the circle of slave culture: "I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incomprehensible songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or hear" (263). The songs of slavery are misinterpreted by those "inside the circle" of slavery; uninformed whites hear them as representations of contentment, thereby justifying the system of slavery. It is only in the liminal space, outside the circle of slavery, with a sophisticated critical literacy, a "second sight," that a true interpretation is possible. The songs are the slave's own language, to which their white enslavers are illiterate, but Douglass needs the distance afforded by his escape from slavery to understand this complexity.
Walter Ong offers a possible explanation for this when he claims that "[f]or an oral culture, learning or knowing means achieving close, empathetic, communal identification with the known ... writing [or literacy] separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for 'objectivity,' in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing" (44). The kind of analysis offered of the songs by Douglass results from his roots in the oral culture of slavery combined with the distance and objectivity gained in the process of becoming literate. Ong goes on to explain that the kind of self-analysis Douglass offers in this section results from the kind of objectivity and distance afforded by writing (54). Steven Mailloux presents a similar reading of the songs section of the narrative, explaining that "Douglass complicates what counts as the conditions of correct reading by placing himself first inside and then outside the experience of slavery and suggests that it is precisely the history of changing places that ... gives [Douglass his rhetorical authority]. Only interpreters occupying the subject position of fugitive slave can correctly read the slaves' songs" (10).
Douglass seems to hint of song as a proprietary language when he describes Covey's attempt to sing. "A very poor singer," Covey relies on Douglass's help to carry a tune, which Douglass sometimes denied him. "My non-compliance would almost always produce great confusion. To show himself independent of me, [Covey] would start and stagger through his hymn in the most discordant manner" (293). Douglass's refusal to sing for Covey is reminiscent of Auld's denial of literacy instruction to Douglass in Chapter VI; Covey is "illiterate" when it comes to song, and Douglass uses that as a means to assert his own superiority.
Douglass's use of the food metaphor to describe his appetite for reading captures the many complexities of the relationship between slave literacy and orality / aurality. He refers to literacy as food when he trades bread for the lessons he receives from the neighborhood children: "I used to carry bread with me ... [which] I used to bestow upon these hungry little urchins, who in return, would give me the more valuable bread of knowledge" (278). In this, and several other instances in the narrative, literacy, like food, gives Douglass sustenance. He craves any kind of written document. For example, he describes the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator as "my food and my drink" (325).
But food and literacy were also frequently denied to slaves in an effort to keep them docile. Unable to read, slaves had their "minds starved by their cruel masters" (304). And to use Douglass's food metaphor, being literate and in bondage was much like being outside the food house at his master's in Baltimore. "A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay smoldering in the safe and smoke-house" (286). It was also like the experience of hungry slaves outside the finely cultivated garden on Colonel Lloyd's plantation. Tempted by boundless fruits of almost every description, slaves were not allowed to partake of the garden's sustenance; the same held true for a literate slave without freedom. Douglass's sense of being overwhelmed by his reading of The Columbian Orator is similar to the experience of the slave who was forced to eat molasses "until the poor fellow [was] made sick at the mention of it" or the slave who is given more food than he can possibly eat and is compelled by his master "to eat it within a given time" (301). Such treatment was designed to "carry off the rebellious spirit" of the slaves by "disgust[ing] them with freedom" and making them feel that returning to slavery was in fact relative freedom. Douglass expresses this same sentiment about literacy when he claims, after learning to read, that "in moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity" (279).
As if to illustrate the way that literacy could exacerbate his sense of enslavement, Douglass tells of his failed attempt to escape by forging passes for himself and his friends. In this incident, Douglass's literacy has the potential to lead him to freedom but only ends up imprisoning him further. Even before Douglass and his friends get the chance to try to use the forged passes, their plan is discovered. While being brought in for questioning by their masters, Douglass tells his friend Henry to eat the forged pass with his biscuit, lest it be discovered as evidence of their plan. Here, the metaphoric value of literacy as food is subverted, because the literal eating of the pass, the words, is not sustaining but is an acknowledgement of literacy's failure to lead to freedom. At the same time, acts of orality (the rumor Douglass hears) and aurality (the eating of the pass) ensure the men's survival. Moreover, in this instance literacy not only failed to help the men escape, it further imprisoned them and separated Douglass from those friends he loved the most. This punishment also reinforces the power of literacy in the eyes of the master, in that the literate act is the crime for which the punishment is the most severe. At this moment of failed literacy, from his jail cell, Douglass echoes the sentiments felt when he first learned to read: "Covered with gloom, I sunk down to the utmost despair" (311).
Ironically, Douglass's actual escape to freedom in the North is unwritten; it is disconnected from any literate acts. In a move which illustrates literacy's potential to cause harm to good people, and the protective power of oral communication, Douglass consciously remains silent about the particulars of his eventual escape. "I deem it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction ... [since] such a statement would undoubtedly produce greater vigilance on the part of slaveholders than has existed among them; which would, of course, be the means of guarding a door whereby some dear brother might escape his galling chains" (315). Douglass uses the master's tool of ignorance as a weapon against him. "I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. ... Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him" (316). Critic Dana Nelson Salvino claims that this characterization of the white slaveholder shrouded in darkness depicts him as illiterate, a "victim to a system of knowledge from which he is barred. Douglass's description of the unknowing slaveholder captures the very experience of illiteracy in a literate society, one of fear and powerlessness" (151). The decision not to write about his escape indicates that Douglass has moved beyond the idealization of literacy which characterized his pre-literate stage. Here, he succeeds in subverting the opposition between slave and master by putting the white man in the position of being illiterate. But Douglass also acknowledges that literacy and freedom are not necessarily inextricably linked.
Ultimately, Douglass's experiences of literacy alone within the narrative do not afford him with even a semblance of the freedom he experiences in these scenes of orality/aurality. Of course, the scenes depict a more spiritual than physical freedom, but from the way that Douglass talks about his experiences, such transcendence is still empowering for the slave. As Douglass later says in My Bondage and My Freedom, "slaves sing more to make themselves happy than to express their happiness" (100), indicating that the process of singing the songs has the capacity to change the slave's reality. Perhaps the reason for the empowerment experienced by Douglass in all these scenes is that they share one important thing: as a means of self-representation and self-expression, the black speakers are relatively independent of any white audience. The songs, Douglass's words to the sea, even the root folktale, are moments of ideological consciousness "outside the circle" of white oppression, spiritual in their strength because they allow the slave to momentarily transcend an oppressive reality, reminiscent of Homer's standard epithet, "winged words" which, as Walter Ong explains, "suggests evanescence, power and freedom: [oral] words are constantly moving, but by flight, which is a powerful form of movement, and one lifting the flier free of the ordinary, gross, heavy 'objective' world" (77). As Gayl Jones reminds us, "musicians use a collection of sounds to communicate to one another things that language cannot adequately convey ... feelings and realities; they can more easily create possibilities and transcend audience controversies over definitions of African-American reality" (190). It is precisely this quality of orality to which Douglass's story attests; these are experiential moments not committed to space in the way that literacy commits words to a physical space. For the slave, who is denied control of physical space and who is himself a piece of property, the elusive quality of orality, the fact that it does not leave a trace, makes this oral mode of expression more liberating than literacy which introduces a sense of private ownership and responsibility for words.
The repeated failure of the communicative act between black speakers and their white audiences is evident in scenes scattered throughout the narrative where slaves' efforts to speak their own truths are repeatedly denied or in scenes where slaves are forced to lie or to remain silent according to the demands of their white audience. When two slaves on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, old and young Barney, were unjustly accused by Lloyd of not giving proper attention to the horses in their charge, they were not afforded any opportunity to reply to the accusations. "To all these unjust complaints, no matter how unjust, the slave must never answer a word ... When [Colonel Lloyd] spoke, a slave must stand, listen and tremble" (264). Slaves learned that even when they were allowed to speak, they dare not utter the truth, since Colonel Lloyd might trick them into expressing how they felt about their enslavement, and then sell them to a Georgia trader for doing so. Slaves learned to lie in order to protect themselves, leading them to establish "the maxim that a still tongue makes a wise head" (266). Coerced into using language to hide reality in order to protect themselves in the presence of a white audience, slaves instead found their true humanity in moments of spirituality independent of whites.
In the Afterword to From Behind the Veil, his study of Afro-American narrative, Robert B. Stepto reinforces Douglass's assessment of literacy, when he writes that "Afro-American literature has developed as much because of the culture's distrust of literacy as because of his [Douglass's] abiding faith in it" (196). Stepto discusses in detail Douglass's identity as a writer and traces the impetus for the writing (and rewriting) of his autobiography to his relationship with a distrustful white readership, using the paradigm of storytelling. Stepto's argument refers to Douglass's relationship with a white readership as a published author, but his comments are also helpful in understanding Douglass's critique of literacy as a character within the narrative struggling with individual acts of communication in the face of hostile white masters. Stepto explains that "[i]n Afro-American storytelling texts especially, rhetoric and narrative strategy combine time and time again to declare that the principle unreliable factor in the storytelling paradigm is the reader ... and that acts of creative communication are fully initiated ... when the reader gets 'told'--or 'told off'--in such a way that he or she finally begins to hear. It is in this way that most written tales express their distrust, not just of readers, but of the official literate culture in general" (202-3). Douglass's narrative fits Stepto's definition of the Afro-American storytelling text in that, as I have outlined, it expresses its distrust of the "official" southern literate culture, particularly the religious literate culture. There are countless scenes in this narrative, several of which I have mentioned, which illustrate the failure of the communicative act, both written and oral, between the black speaker and his white audience. Douglass's response to this failure as a slave in bondage--in the scenes which illustrate his strongest sense of freedom--is to ignore his white audience, to speak instead to himself and to God, which, in Bakhtin's way of understanding it, is the means by which Douglass "populates [his language] with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention" (222). Ultimately, Douglass identifies moments of reclaiming his humanity not in literacy alone--which was dominated by the rules and intentions of the white audience--but with literate experiences transformed by action and infused with the spirit of an African oral tradition.
Thus far I have limited my discussion to quite a narrow framework, focusing only on Frederick Douglass's experiences of literacy and orality as a character within his 1845 narrative. I now want to widen my scope beyond Douglass's life as a slave to explore the meaning and function of literacy in Douglass's experiences as a published author and a renowned orator in the years after his escape from slavery. I have argued that as Douglass's literateness becomes increasingly sophisticated he manages to transcend the limitations of slave literacy by constantly shifting his perspective and by engaging in acts of literate expression transformed by action and infused with the spirit of orality. These moments of relative freedom frequently occur "outside the circle" of a white audience. But once he becomes a spokesman for the abolitionist movement and a published author and journalist in a racist northern society, Frederick Douglass no longer has the option of transcending a white audience because whites are the very audience he needs to persuade of slavery's horrible injustices. Instead, as the revisions to his narrative illustrate, Douglass continues to synthesize the black oral tradition with his developing literateness. It is in the syncretization of these two systems of representation, which Douglass repeatedly refers to as his "two-pronged instrument," his own unique version of Bakhtin's "double-voiced discourse," that he gains his utmost personal power and cultural authority.
As a public speaker and a published writer, Douglass's experience of literacy changes dramatically. He is forced to negotiate his way through a whole host of new concerns, mostly having to do with his relationship to his audience. Houston Baker reminds us that Douglass's 1845 narrative was initially written in response to distrustful whites who doubted the veracity of incidents Douglass narrated in his speeches at abolitionist meetings. The "work was written to prove that the narrator had indeed been a slave" (251). At the same time, in writing the narrative (as in any autobiographical act) Douglass is asserting his identity as a human being and defining himself as a man, not a slave, a very personal and potentially liberating act. Given these two impetuses for his public act of writing, Douglass's experiences of authorship were alternately freeing and enslaving because they simultaneously asserted his humanity and reinforced his identity as a slave.
In addition, as Douglass's literacy becomes a public act, the rhetorical triangle of his literate activity (writer-reader-text) broadens to include the added political dimensions of his sponsors, the Garrisonian abolitionists, and his constituency, the millions of blacks both free and enslaved, on whose behalf he writes. The continuing development of Douglass's literateness, evident in emerging conflicts between him and his sponsor William Lloyd Garrison, from whom he breaks in the 1850's, and Douglass and his constituency (many of whom criticized him for "deserting to the old master class and being a traitor to his race") are embodied in the various versions of the narrative which Douglass revised throughout his life (436). In the rest of this essay I explore the changing meaning and function of literacy in these texts, and acknowledge the process of revision and the role of orality in Douglass's developing consciousness of literacy. I explore Douglass's shifting definitions of literacy: his understanding of literacy as a system of self-representation (as an autobiographical act) and as an avenue for political representation as he attempts to speak and write for an oppressed people without alienating his white readership. Douglass always occupies a marginal position between a privileged, highly literate white ruling class to whom he writes and a largely illiterate class of blacks for whom he writes.4 This shifting position, evident in Douglass's changing self-definition, is reflected in the revisions of his narrative.
Many scholars have argued that the form of the slave narrative itself is enslaved because of its inextricable link to a white audience and the racist assumptions of those to whom arguments against slavery are being directed. Robert Stepto, for example, points to the existence of "authenticating documents" appended to the beginning of slave narratives by prominent whites which are "at least partially responsible for the narrator's acceptance as historical evidence" (3). These documents attest to the veracity of the narrative, evidence that even the literate slave narrator had little authority without being backed up by the voice of whites who swear the story is indeed the truth. These documents are (to get back to Bakhtin) the "authoritative discourse" of the abolitionist movement. William Andrews argues that all nineteenth-century slave narratives are "enclosed" by the literary forms bequeathed to them by whites. "Formally (at least) the framework relegates the narrator's words to the status of middle ... thus creating the impression that the narrative proper is a 'means' serving its white audience's 'ends'" ("Strategies" 25). Douglass's narrative is preceded by a Preface from abolitionist Henry Lloyd Garrison and a letter from lawyer Wendell Phillips. Both Phillips and Garrison assure the readers that "[t]he testimony of Mr. DOUGLASS ... is sustained by a cloud of witnesses, whose veracity is unimpeachable" (251). The narrative, says Garrison, "is essentially true in all its statements; nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination" (247).
Ironically, Garrison argues most forcefully for the authenticity of Douglass's written narrative by citing the pathos and stirring eloquence of Douglass's first speech in Nantucket in August 1841. "As a public speaker he excels in pathos, wit, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language" (247). Furthermore, Garrison says that Douglass was "capable of high attainments as an intellectual and moral being" (246)--the very qualities which define humanity--even though "he was only a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel" (246). Here Garrison refers to Douglass's orality to validate his literacy; he equates intellectual capacity with humanity to argue for Douglass's believability. Garrison also points to Douglass's soliloquy on the shore of the Chesapeake as the most eloquent moment in the narrative: "I think the most thrilling [incident] is the description DOUGLASS gives of his feelings, as he stood soliloquizing respecting his fate, and the chances of his one day being a freeman, on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay--viewing the receding vessels as they flew with their white wings before the breeze, and apostrophizing them as animated by the living spirit of freedom. Who can read that passage, and be insensible to its pathos and sublimity?" (249). Douglass wrote in order to authenticate his speech, but Garrison's statement authenticates the written narrative by attesting to Douglass's power as an orator, thus attesting to the "internally persuasive" power of Douglass's preacherly voice.
Houston Baker argues that Douglass's act of writing is further dictated by the language, discourse, and expectations of the white readership. He claims Douglass's style is "indistinguishable from that of the sentimental-romantic oratory that marked the American nineteenth century" and that Douglass is forced to create a version of himself that is "molded by the values of white America" (251). Baker questions whether or not the "self" described in Douglass's narrative is "authentic" because "once literacy has been achieved, the black self ... begins to distance itself from the aural-oral community of the slave quarters. ... The voice of the unwritten self, once it is subjected to the linguistic codes, literary conventions, and expectations of a white audience, is perhaps never again the authentic black voice of American slavery. It is, rather, the voice of a self transformed by an autobiographical act into a sharer in the general public discourse about slavery." In essence, Baker believes that Douglass, in using literacy, imprisons himself within the confines of an already established public discourse about slavery. Baker believes that had "there been a separate written black language available, Douglass might have fared better" (251) in terms of making his literacy an act of freedom. Annette Niemtzow agrees, claiming that Douglass's autobiography, "by virtue of its genre, unconsciously pays tribute to a definition of self created by whites ... the act of writing itself ... helps him to [a] self.. defined by whites ... for the word itself posits a concept controlled by whites" (102).
Henry Louis Gates extends this argument further, claiming that language itself is enslaving for all black writers. Gates explains that by playing into the false premise "of the great white Western tradition" that argued writing would bring freedom (from bondage, from racism), blacks accepted a challenge which concealed a trap. This trap is symbolized in the story Gates tells of the 1915 death of Edmond LaForest, a prominent member of the Haitian literary movement LaRonde. LaForest tied a dictionary around his neck and jumped from a bridge to his death, symbolizing the "curious relation of the marginalized writer to the act of writing in a modern language" (Race 13). LaForest's death captures the indentured relationship of the black writer to modern languages since blacks have not been liberated from racism by their writings (12). It is the challenge of the black writer, argues Gates, to "critique this relation of indenture" which is precisely what Douglass does.
Certainly Frederick Douglass's entrance into an already existing discourse about slavery is initially limiting in some respects, but language is not always the "prison house" which critic Wilson J. Moses characterizes it as being for Douglass (70). Instead, language and the genre of the slave narrative serve more as a template for Douglass's acts of writing, which he draws upon as a model, but which he increasingly moves away from as he rewrites and revises the text. There are indications that once Douglass is physically free he does remain enslaved by the language of slavery. For example, when he calls his fellow slaves "stupid" for being unable to read, he echoes the correlation that Henry Louis Gates reminds us was originally made by Immanuel Kant, who equated "black" with "stupid" (Race 11). Even after his escape from slavery, Douglass refers to his state of freedom as being his own master. By calling himself his "own master" Douglass identifies himself in the language of the master-slave relationship, even though he has escaped its bonds.
While I acknowledge the arguments that Douglass is confined by language and the demands of his white audience, Gates and especially Baker and Niemtzow present an oversimplified view of Douglass's relationship to literacy. They represent literacy as a static relationship of bondage and represent the black self as defined by language. To reiterate the claim made earlier, Douglass's literacy is a process by which he comes to terms with the authoritative discourse of the institution of slavery, a process in which he infuses that discourse with the internally persuasive voice of slave experience. Douglass's acts of authorship show us--in opposition to Baker's assessment of the authentic black self--that Douglass's sense of self is a fluid one which emerges through his struggles with literacy as a means of self- and political representation. His relationship to the form of the slave narrative and to the discourse of slavery constantly shifts throughout his career, moving beyond being defined by it, to rewriting the discourse itself, indeed, even rewriting the discourse of history.5
At certain moments, admittedly, Douglass is enslaved by literacy. In the 1845 version of the narrative in the early period of his public life, Douglass is relatively dependent upon the validation of the abolitionists and is limited by the "authoritative discourse" of the abolition movement. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society pays his salary and ensures that his narrative is published. But if we move beyond the 1845 narrative to explore its revisions and if we look at Douglass's changing role in public life, we see a writer who gradually matures in his public literacy and moves away from what Baker and Gates would characterize as literary bondage to an increasingly critical literacy which he uses for political advantage. In the process, Douglass's writing becomes less dependent upon the authentication of whites and ultimately critiques the relation of indenture Gates describes. Moreover, by the time he completes his final revisions of the autobiography in the 1880's, slavery has been abolished and Douglass's writings move beyond the slave narrative form to address the complexity of race relations and the American political consciousness during Reconstruction. By constantly revising his own acts of self-representation and political representation, Douglass eludes the enslaving capacity of literacy for the black writer in much the same way that he wrested control of literacy from the white boys in Durgin and Bailey's shipyard.
This developing sense of self is evident in the changing titles of the narrative, which correspond with the phases of Douglass's public career. From 1841-1845, Douglass was a paid lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The 1845 narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, represents a self defined by slavery. By 1855, Douglass's life has moved beyond his identity as a slave, as evident in the title My Bondage and My Freedom, which indicates a shared emphasis on Douglass identity as a slave and his identity as a free man as well as a shift from object to subject as indicated by the shift from third to first person. In the 1881 narrative, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, his early life as a slave, his escape from bondage, and his history complete, Douglass's life is important, but also important are the "times" in which he lived, indicating that the text moves beyond autobiography into accounts of history. Indeed, Douglass claims that "I have written out my experiences here, not to exhibit my wounds and bruises to awaken and attract sympathy to myself personally, but as part of the history of a profoundly interesting period in American life and progress" (486). Douglass's autobiographical writing is a constant process of redefining and accommodating his multiple selves; the act of revision allows him to acknowledge that fluid process of self-definition and the means by which it merges into political and historical representation.
Initially Douglass accommodates his acts of literacy to meet the demands of his abolitionist supporters and to win the acceptance of a distrustful audience of whites. In describing his life as a slave, he uses textual metaphors to capture the objectification of his experience. When being whipped, he claimed that his master was the "author" of his situation (160) and that the overseer, in whipping slaves, "had written his character on the living parchment of [the slaves'] backs" (177). Once he is freed from slavery, when he becomes a speaker for the abolitionist movement, Douglass describes Garrison as taking him as his "text." Douglass was introduced in those early years as an orator, "a graduate from the peculiar institution ... with [his] diploma written on his back" (359). Douglass was also cautioned against speaking of anything more than his own experiences as a slave or venturing to give any personal opinions on slavery. It was said to him: "Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech then not; 'tis not best that you seem too learned" (362). Moreover, in many of his early speeches, Douglass echoes slavery's definition of him as a piece of property, even as he argues against that definition. For example, in his early years he was introduced to his audience "as a 'chattel,'--a 'thing'--'a piece of southern property'--with the assurance that 'it' could speak. In fact, he sometimes used the same terminology to refer to himself" (Blassingame l-li).
Douglass's 1855 revision, My Bondage and My Freedom, dramatizes the emergence of his internally persuasive discourse and its growing tension with the authoritative discourse of the abolitionist movement. For example, Douglass explains that in his speeches, abolitionists encouraged him to be himself and tell his story, but he complains that he was no longer content "writing in the spaces left" of texts written by whites: "I could not always obey, for now I was writing and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. ... Besides, I was growing, and needed room" (362). Douglass needed the room of his own pages on which to write. Moreover, he begins here to develop his strong pattern of linking literacy with orality, indicating that alone, neither provide sufficient conditions for freedom.
By 1855, the introductions of him as a "thing" which Douglass had earlier embraced became to him "an anathema, smacking of paternalism and racism" (Blassingame li). In essence, Douglass moved beyond his objectification by the abolitionists to a new kind of subjectivity even as they resisted his efforts to grow beyond the bounds of his identity as a slave. As he became more literate, Douglass grew increasingly discontented with a representation of himself only as a slave. "He was tired about all the conjecture of his not having truly been a slave and suggestions that he was not able to write his own speeches. He could damn well read and write; he had been a slave, but slavery had not left him a beast to be displayed; he was not a black dummy manipulated by a white ventriloquist" (Blassingame 113). Douglass moved beyond being Garrison's "text" to authoring his own text.
Douglass's ultimate break with the Garrisonian abolitionists centered around two issues of literacy which reiterate the "thinking and writing" duality mentioned earlier: Douglass's desire to print and edit his own newspaper and his interpretation of the Constitution. Both of these incidents resulted from Douglass's desire to assert his independence both as a writer and as a reader of texts. Upon returning from an extended trip to England, Douglass planned to purchase a press and begin his own newspaper to enter into the public debate about slavery without Garrison's protective arm. Douglass claimed, again using the writing/thinking connection, "I already saw myself wielding my pen, as well as my voice, in the great work of renovating the public mind, and building up a public sentiment which should, at least, send slavery and oppression to the grave, and restore to "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" the people with whom I had suffered, both as a slave and as a freeman" (392-392). Douglass had some reservations about taking on the role of editor and printer and was opposed vehemently in his efforts by the abolitionists in America for several reasons. He explains: "First, the paper was not needed; secondly it would interfere with my usefulness as a lecturer; thirdly I was better fitted to speak than to write; fourthly the paper could not succeed" (393). Moreover, Douglass feared that his failure with his newspaper might "contribute another proof to the mental and moral deficiencies of my race" (393). His doubts indicate that Douglass was still working with the assumptions about blackness and literacy outlined by Gates. But that didn't stop him. His newspaper, The North Star, later to become Frederick Douglass Paper, proved to be very successful because it acknowledges Douglass's belief that "[o]ur relation to the American people makes us in some sense a peculiar class, and unless we speak separately, our voice is not heard" (484).
In the second issue of literacy underscoring Douglass's developing sense of autonomy, he ultimately broke with Garrison over their differing interpretations of the Constitution. Garrison was committed to the belief that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document and that the union with slaveholding states should be dissolved. As an objection to the union with slaveholding states, the Garrisonians refused to vote. For years Douglass "advocated [this position] with his pen and tongue" (396). But ultimately, in a move which illustrates Douglass's emerging critical literacy, he reconsiders this blind devotion to Garrison's perspective:
[U]pon a reconsideration of the whole subject, I became convinced that there was no need for dissolving the union ... that to seek this dissolution was no part of my duty as an abolitionist; that to abstain from voting, was to refuse to exercise a legitimate and powerful means of abolishing slavery and that the constitution of the United States not only contains no guarantees in favor of slavery but on the contrary, it is, in its letter and spirit, an antislavery document, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law of the land.(396)
Here, Douglass refuses to give up his power to vote, which is the act of a literate populace. He recognizes that Garrison can afford to give up that literate power precisely because he already possesses it. But Douglass, who has been denied the power to vote, recognizes that the literate act is, for him, essential to his own independent identity. Ultimately, Douglass's change in doctrine hinges on the development and embrace of his literate skills. He had previously assumed the constitution to be just what Garrison's interpretation made it because Douglass had little faith in his own ability to interpret the document:
I was bound, not only by their superior knowledge, to take their opinions as the true ones, in respect to the subject, but also because I had no means of showing their unsoundness. But for the responsibility of conducting a public journal and the necessity imposed upon me by the abolitionists in this state, I should in all probability have remained as firm in my disunion views as any other disciple of William Lloyd Garrison. ... [But] my new circumstances compelled me to rethink the whole subject and to study, with some care, not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers and duties of civil government, and also the relations which human beings sustain by it. By such a course of thought and reading, I was conducted to the conclusion that the constitution of the United States ... could not have been designed to maintain a system ... like slavery.(397)
By dramatizing his break with the Garrisonians (again through thought and writing), Douglass works against their discourse and against their image of him as an uncritical disciple. Bakhtin describes this stage in developing literateness as a time when "someone is striving to liberate himself from the influence of such an image and its discourse by means of objectification, or is struggling to expose the limitations of both image and discourse. The importance of struggling with another's discourse, its influence in the history of the individual's coming to ideological consciousness, is enormous. One's own discourse and one's own voice, although born of another or dynamically stimulated by another, will sooner or later begin to liberate themselves from the authority of another's discourse" (348). Douglass's own newspaper and his new interpretation of the Constitution are born of his relationship with the Garrisonian abolitionists, but as he matures, his critical literateness allows him to liberate himself from the authority of those who wish to define him.
This is especially evident in the Life and Times, written well after slavery has been abolished. In this version of the narrative, Douglass no longer feels it necessary to keep secret the details of his escape from slavery. Interestingly, he explains that he was able to escape by using the masters' assumptions about literacy against them: "My means of escape were provided for me by the very men who were making laws to hold and bind me more securely in slavery" (197). Free blacks in the state of Maryland were required to carry "free papers" with them, which included a description of the owner. But Douglass explains that this use of literacy to control blacks "in some measure defeated itself, since more than one man could be found to answer to the same description. Hence many slaves could escape by impersonating the owner of one set of papers" (197). These papers were frequently transferred among blacks to help each other escape from slavery.
Douglass did not use these free papers, but he did have a sailor friend, who had a sailor's protection, "which somewhat answered the purpose of free papers" (199). "The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which gave it the appearance of an authorized document" (198). Even though Douglass looked nothing like the man described on the document, the mere fact that the document was "official looking" was enough to protect him in his flight north. The telling of this story indicates that because many literate white men had not grasped the necessary coexistence of "writing and thinking," Douglass is able to use the white man's belief in the power of literacy against him, as a means to escape from bondage.
There are other significant changes to Douglass's description of his life as a slave in the revision. Eric Sundquist explains that many recent literary critics have expressed a preference for the 1845 version over My Bondage and My Freedom and especially over the "more self-indulgent" Life and Times, indicating "a distrust of the patriotic rhetoric, the gothic and sentimental literary conventions, and the myth of self-made success that are more characteristic of the later volumes" (4), all of which critics have seen as weaknesses. The distaste for the later versions as being less existential, more crafted, and more conscious leads to a paradox: "the less like a slave [Douglass] acted or sounded, the less likely audiences were to believe his story" (4) or to value his writing. What these criticisms seem not to recognize is that the process of developing literateness, for any individual, requires a period of experimentation with literary conventions.
Overall, the 1855 revision indicates a writer with more conscious control over his subject and a greater sense of the relationship he has with his audience. Douglass more frequently addresses his audience; he analyzes events to a greater extent, venturing to engage in a harsher denunciation of the evils of slavery and to work against many of the common prejudices against blacks. For example, Douglass is aware of those whites who attribute his skills as a writer to the blood of his white father. In response to these prejudicial accusations, in the first revision of the narrative Douglass attributes his love of letters to his dark-skinned mother:
I learned, after my mother's death, that she could read, and she was the only one of all the slaves and colored people in Tuckahoe who enjoyed that advantage ... I can ... finally and proudly ascribe to her an earnest love of knowledge ... and in view of that fact, I am quite willing and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess and for which I have got--despite of prejudices--only too much credit, not to my admitted Anglo-Saxon paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother--a woman, who belonged to a race whose mental endowments it is, at present, fashionable to hold in disparagement and contempt.(58)
As this revision shows, if Douglass does begin to adopt the rhetoric and the conventions of his culture, he does so in order to critique the prejudicial beliefs of his white audience. Moreover, the form of the autobiography becomes less and less dictated by the demands of a white audience. The revised narrative, for example, does not have the "authenticating documents" from prominent whites, since Douglass's reputation stood on its own. In My Bondage, My Freedom, the letters by Garrison and Phillips are replaced with an Editor's Preface which includes a letter written by Douglass himself and an Introduction by a black physician Dr. James McCune Smith. Life and Times opens with an Introduction by Mr. George L. Ruffin. In addition, Douglass also includes many of his speeches and newspaper articles in the revised versions of the narrative. In this sense the document becomes more diverse in that it incorporates his acts of orality into its written framework, in addition to the fact that the prose itself, as Eric J. Sundquist notes, becomes more "oratorical."
In the later versions of the narrative, Douglass seems to feel comfortable with the many different selves from which his writing emerges, as well as the complexity of his reading audience. He is aware that his white readers may object to things he has written, but he is able to acknowledge that his differing audiences have different needs and he is willing to address and accommodate those differences. For example, in writing to a mixed audience he explains:
It will be seen in these pages that I have lived several lives in one ... the life of slave ... of a fugitive slave, of comparative freedom, of conflict and battle, of victory. If I have pushed my example too prominently for the good taste of my Caucasian readers I beg them to remember that I have written in part for the encouragement of a class whose aspirations need the stimulus of success.(487)
This ability to handle the changing complexities of audience was a conflict which Douglass constantly struggled with in his later years. He seemed to realize there were different kinds of language to be used for different audiences and that to be effective, his literacy must be able to shift according to those differences, to embrace a double-voicedness: "There are some things which ought to be said to colored people in the peculiar circumstances in which they are placed, that can be said more effectively among ourselves, without the presence of white persons. We are the oppressed, the whites are the oppressors, and the language I would address to one is not always suited to the other" (xlv).
Once slavery was abolished, Douglass experienced a difficult transition in his sense of purpose, since the cause for which he had directed his life had changed. He no longer was asked to speak to white audiences about abolition. He explains that "Outside the thoughts of slavery my thoughts had not been much directed, and I could hardly hope to make myself useful in any other cause than that to which I had given twenty five years of my life" (381). In Life and Times Douglass dramatizes a transitional experience in his writing and speaking. Asked to speak to a college audience for the first time after slavery has been abolished, he approaches another stage in his developing literateness. At first, Douglass is unsure of what to speak about before a highly educated audience:
The puzzling question now was, what should I say if I go there? It won't do to give them an old fashioned anti-slavery discourse. But what shall I talk about? ... For many nights I toiled, and succeeded at least in getting something together in due form. Written orations had not been in my line. I had usually depended upon my unsystematized knowledge and the inspiration of the hours and the occasion, but I had now got "the scholar bee in my bonnet" and supposed inasmuch as I was to speak to college professors and students, I must at least make a show of some familiarity with letters. It proved as to its immediate effect, a great mistake, for my carefully studied and written address, full of learned quotations, fell dead at my feet, while a few remarks I made extemporaneously ... were enthusiastically received.(382)
Essentially, Douglass's conflict here emerges out of his identity as a literate being, which had always been connected to his ability to write "in the spaces left" by the discourse of the master, and out of a sense of personal responsibility as a survivor of slavery. By trying to adopt the language of the scholar in this lecture, Douglass momentarily places himself back into the position of echoing the words of the master or being the ventriloquist for the abolitionists. He ultimately realizes, however, that even though slavery has been abolished, the "pen and the tongue" still had much work to do in the fight for equality. When he learns that the president and the faculty of the college were distressed that he, a black man, was asked to speak at their institution, he begins to understand the discrepancy between the word of the law of abolition and the spirit of the law, just as he had earlier articulated the discrepancy between the words of Christianity and the deeds of the slaveholders. As Douglass states about a similar experience of ostracism upon being selected as a delegate to a national political convention: "They, dear fellows, found it much more agreeable to talk of the principles of liberty as glittering generalities, than to reduce those principles to practice" (395).
Ultimately, Douglass understands that his power as an orator and writer rests not in echoing the authoritative discourse of his scholarly audience, but in continuing to speak and write in a manner which recognizes what he learned in the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, that is, by privileging the spirit of the law over the written word of the law. As he states soon after his experience with the college audience: "I ... soon found out that the negro had still a cause, and that he needed my voice and my pen with others to plead for it" (385-6). Douglass achieves this multivocal literacy by continuing to rely on his "unsystematized knowledge and the inspiration of the hours and the occasion" to guide his voice and pen. He ultimately finds success as a writer and lecturer after slavery by relying on his reputation and continuing to refine his skills as an orator. He knows how to command an audience of whites: "I had an audience ready made in the free states; one which thirty years of labor had prepared for me, and before this audience the freedmen of the South needed a advocate as much as they needed a member of Congress" (407). He also understands that in his career as a public speaker he must go beyond mere words to act towards achieving equality for his people. "I never rise to speak before an American audience without something of the feeling that my failure or success will bring blame or benefit to my whole race" (385).
Rather than working to adopt the language of the scholar, Douglass acknowledges the importance of his own voice in the fight for equality. In perhaps his deepest and most sophisticated insight into his own literate identity, Douglass acknowledges the differences between his own act of storytelling and those of the masters and scholars, reiterating the value of his own active literacy in the chronicling of American history:
I have written out my experiences here not to exhibit my wounds and bruises to awaken and attract sympathy to myself personally, but as part of the history of a profoundly interesting period in American life and progress. I have meant it to be a small individual contribution to the sum of knowledge of this special period, to be handed down to after-coming generations which may want to know what things were allowed and what prohibited; what moral, social, and political relations subsisted between the different varieties of American people down to the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and by what means they were modified and changed. The time is at hand when the last American slaveholder will disappear behind the curtain which separates the living from the dead, and when neither master nor slave will be left to tell the story of their respective relations and what happened in those relations to either. My part has been to tell the story of the slave (emphasis added). They have had all the talent and genius that wealth and influence could command to tell their story. They have had their full day in court. Literature, theology, philosophy, law and learning have come to their service and if condemned they have not been condemned unheard.(487)
That important sentence, "My part has been to tell the story of the slave" speaks volumes about Douglass's understanding of the fractured nature of the master discourse of American history and of the important role his story plays in that history. Certainly Douglass's "small individual contribution," continues to fill in the spaces which those histories have left unwritten and unspoken.
Notes
1. Walter Ong reminds us of the dangers of using the term "pre-literate" to describe cultures of primary orality. "Although the term 'pre-literate' itself is useful and at times necessary, if used unreflectively it also presents problems which are the same as those presented by the term 'oral literature,' if not quite so assertive. 'Preliterate' presents orality--the 'primary modeling system'--as an anachronistic deviant from the 'secondary modeling system' that followed it" (13). In the case of Frederick Douglass, however, who is on the threshold of literacy, the term pre-literate works to capture his position of being informed about the technology of literacy even though he is not yet capable of reading or writing. See Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
2. Henry Louis Gates also refers to liminality in "James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book." Gates sees the acts of reading and writing as a way to "transgress" the realm of liminality, which he sees as a negative position. Gates' use of liminality arises from Robert Pelton's use of the term in The Trickster in West Africa. See also Houston Baker's use of the term liminality in Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Baker's use of the term is taken from Victor Turner's work. Turner observes that "liminality [a transitional or marginal state] is pure potency, where anything can happen, where immoderacy is normal, even normative, and where elements of culture and society are released from their customary configurations and recombined in bizarre and terrifying imagery." Baker is discussing the role of myth in Afro-American literature. See p. 116.
3. Steven Mailloux reminds us that Douglass's comments on Christianity and slavery were part of a larger cultural debate in the 1840s over the Bible politics. According to Mailloux in these comments and in the Appendix to the 1845 Narrative Douglass enters directly into a "multifaceted and highly contested Bible politics of interpretation" (20). See "Misreading as a Historical Act: Cultural Rhetoric, Bible Politics and Fuller's 1845 Review of Douglass's Narrative." For more on Douglass and his relationship to Bible politics see Janet Duitsman Cornelius, "When I Can Read My Title Clear": Literacy, Slavery and Religion in the Antebellum South.
4. In "Frederick Douglass's Life and Times: Progressive Rhetoric and the Problem of Constituency," Kenneth W. Warren likens Douglass to other social reformers (among them, naturalist and realist novelists) in that he used his autobiography as an avenue of democratic representation to speak on behalf of silenced African-Americans. The problem with this, argues Warren, is similar to the problem experienced by realist and naturalist novelists, in that "the intelligent, articulate spectator, while attempting to reveal the details of these mute silenced lives, distances himself from those he represents, making them other than himself, and confines them to a realm, outside of that inhabited by the spectator. The condition of representation seems to be alienation" (257). Warren likens Douglass, in his later life, to Henry James in their belief in the "missionary potential of the educated voice" (262). "Concerned with the vulgarity they thought they saw destroying the fiber of American public life, both men sought to play the role of social missionary or popular prophet" (264).
For a similar discussion about the alienation inherent in acts of political representation, see Michael Warner's The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth Century America.
5. For other discussions of Douglass's conflicts in writing, see Wilson J. Moses, "Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing" and David Van Leer's "Reading Slavery: The Anxiety of Ethnicity in Douglass's Narrative"; Kenneth Warren's "Frederick Douglass's Life and Times: Progressive Rhetoric and the Problem of Constituency" and Eric Sundquist's "Introduction" all found in Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays.
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Source Citation: Sisco, Lisa. "'Writing in the Spaces Left': Literacy as a Process of Becoming in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass." American Transcendental Quarterly. 9.3 (Sept. 1995): 195-227. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Russel Whitaker. Vol. 141. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 195-227. Literature Resource Center. Gale. De Anza College. 3 Dec. 2009 .
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