In William L. Andrews’s “Frederick Douglass and the American Jeremiad,” the overarching assertion is that, “as an American jeremiad, Douglass’s Narrative deconstructed binary oppositions that uphold slavery in the South while reconstructing the pattern of his life around other sets of oppositions whose support of the myth of America he might as readily have questioned, too” (Andrews 166). Throughout the essay, we learn that Andrews deters from the standard conception of a jeremiad; that of one being, roughly, a lengthy tale of woe. We in turn, see that the frequently mentioned American jeremiad is a different beast altogether. Andrews claims that American jeremiad is a text that has the capacity to, “sustain a middle-class consensus about America both excoriating lapses from it and rhetorically coopting challenges (such as those offered by Frederick Douglass) to it. (157). Also, Douglass’s Narrative, as Andrews avers, was written masterfully with, “effort to appeal to white middle-class readers of the North by fashioning his autobiography into a kind of American jeremiad” while it simultaneously through criticism of the country’s societal constructs, “foretold America’s future” (157). As the essay progresses, and the exploration of Douglass as the black Jeremiah continues; and Andrews spends a great deal of time summarizing the Narrative. These summations put forth by Andrews only serve to loosely join Douglass to the American jeremiad construction. Andrews also in these summaries, focuses heavy handedly on Douglass’s Narrative both being a text laden with Douglass’s own Christianity, and of Douglass’s likening himself to an “economic revolutionary” (162). Ultimately though, Andrews aligns himself with Sacvan Bercovitch’s constraint that: “the jeremiad is responsible for rationalizing and channeling individualistic impulse in America as to reconcile it with the myth of America’s corporate destiny as a chosen people;” and that Douglass effectively does this in his work (160).
Andrews’s essay, while not always linear, possesses a great deal of strength when the benefits of Douglass writing in the jeremiad form are explored. As Andrews stated, Douglass had to actively formulate his writing into a style that would be well received by his white middle-class readers. Those white readers, would have been familiar with the jeremiad at least in its more canonical, Christian form, the “spiritual autobiographies” (159). Therefore Andrews subtly brings to our attention that Douglass’s formalistic choices aided him in public accessibility. Andrews on the other hand, is still fully aware that, “Those marked by racial heritage as other had to prove that they were of “the people,” the American chosen, by demonstrating in their own lives the rituals of Americanization” (161). It appears that the careful formulation of Douglass’s text made him more able to provide that needed proof. The jeremiad also, “provided a structure for Douglass’s vision of America that was both empowering and limiting at the same time;” Douglass was able to, as Andrews contests, “excoriate the South as much as he pleased” while also regularly invoking, “the dream of America as a land of freedom and opportunity” (164). It seems that Andrews is stanchly attached to the belief that Douglass’s formalistic choices were of great assistance in reaching his readers; yet he is aware that those faculties alone were not enough to fully avoid prejudice.
Where Andrews’s essay establishes strength in formalistic analysis, his work loses pertinence with his own formalistic weakness by means of his vaguely asserted thesis and his out of context analyses. When reading any sort of argumentative or critical writing, I find it tremendously off-putting when a writer has no concise or strong thesis. This situation seemed to be present in Andrews’s essay. It is not until the last page, that such a thesis appears; that bit of text is the first quote in my essay. But what I found most problematic was Andrews’s depiction of Douglass’s Narrative as a text vastly filled with religious and spiritual exploration. In what would equate to about two pages of the nine page essay, Andrews either quotes or summarizes what gives the impression of almost every religiously toned segments of Douglass’s Narrative. Phrases used by Andrews to play up Douglass’s spirituality in the text such as: “Douglass’s faith in this intuitively felt heavenly promise liberation”, “A subscription to the Liberator sets his “soul” on fire for the cause of abolitionism,” and “This liberation of the tongue climaxes the life-long quest of Frederick Douglass toward his divinely appointed destiny in the antislavery ministry” all undermine the mental, physical and intuitive capacity that Douglass drew upon to escape from the oppression of slavery. While Andrews is a clear supporter of Douglass, his religious heavy handedness in turn, attributes Douglass’s success and accomplishments in surpassing slavery to the divine rather than praising Douglass’s own accomplishments as man.
In the end, the forced compaction of religious material provides readers with a misleading understanding of the significance of religion in the Narrative. Perhaps though, this is significance placed on religion is merely an outcome of discussing Douglass’s work in terms of the classically religious jeremiad.