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Fugitive Slave Narratives and the (Re)presentation of the Self? The Cases of Frederick Douglass and William Brown

Les récits d’esclaves fugitifs et la question de la (re)présentation de soi : les cas de Frederick Douglass et de William Wells Brown 
Los relatos de esclavos fugitivos y la representación de sí: los casos de Frederick Douglass y William Welles Brown 
Relatos de escravos fugitivos e a questão da re(a)presentação de si: o caso de Frederick Douglass et de William Wells Brown 
Lawrence Aje


En se concentrant sur une sélection d’œuvres de Frederick Douglass et de William Wells Brown publiées à l’époque antebellum, cet article examine comment les représentations de l’esclavage ont évolué à travers le temps. Il met en évidence la façon dont les conditions historiques et matérielles de réalisation des récits autobiographiques d’esclaves ont influencé leur contenu. En analysant les choix thématiques, ainsi que l’ordonnancement de la séquence narrative effectués par Douglass et Brown, cet article montre que les auteurs asservis étaient de simples représentants d’une cause idéologique qui jouissaient de peu de liberté d’expression. Les abolitionnistes instrumentalisèrent la vie des auteurs-esclaves dans le but de rendre leur récit le plus représentatif de l’expérience des esclaves vivant dans une société esclavagiste, fût-ce au prix de leur véracité absolue. Un examen des œuvres publiées ultérieurement par les auteurs permet d’évaluer dans quelle mesure la liberté littéraire et éditoriale grandissante dont ils jouirent a modifié leur représentation de l’esclavage et, de façon intéressante, montre que Douglass et Brown choisirent de fictionnaliser la vie des autres tout en se réécrivant dans le processus.

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1From their inception, fugitive slave narratives have had an ongoing and marked shaping influence on African-American literary creation. Slave narratives served an ideological purpose, namely to elicit the sympathy of northern readers to the plight of southern slaves as well as to publicize the abolitionist movement. Yet as they gained in popularity, slave autobiographies came to share a communality of themes which eventually gave birth to a literary genre that bore unexpected repercussions on the representation of North American slavery and bondsmen. Despite slave narratives’ benevolent and laudable intentions, is it not fair to say that this activist literary undertaking partook in the construction of an archetypal character? To be more precise, what topoi ultimately and involuntarily discredited the message of these narratives and contributed to strip slaves of their individuality? Given that slave narratives served an obvious abolitionist agenda, to what extent did their ideological content outweigh their artistic value by laying emphasis on the message to the detriment of the form?

2In this article, we propose to examine the multiple facets of the tropes expanded in slave narratives through the comparative study of the incipit of two canonic texts written within a short time scope: Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and William W. Brown’s Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself (1847). Our purpose is to underscore obvious similarities and differences between these two texts in an attempt to identify some of the aesthetic elements which characterize the genre and enabled its success. This analysis will lead us to argue that slave narratives were inscribed in a broader artistic field which transcended limited literary confines. Our concern will be to show how the issues of race, gender, and politics were (re)presented in this literary genre. Ultimately, we will contend that slave narratives served a political agenda and that fugitive slaves had little leeway in terms of their freedom of expression. Yet, they did make the best of these constraints and eventually managed to break free from the yoke of white paternalism.

I/ Representing slavery

  • 1 Among the many subsequent African American texts which have been described as being the literary de (...)

3Slave narratives have been described as the urtext of African-American literature, that is to say the primal text of African-American literature (Depardieu, 124).1 Throughout the nineteenth century, autobiographies of fugitive or former slaves dominated the African-American narrative tradition. Approximately sixty-five American slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form before 1865 (Andrews, 1993, 78). Owing to the popularity of the genre, slave narratives were translated into different languages. Specific characteristics made the genre very successful and attractive to nineteenth century readers. The vertical movement from the south to the north, which symbolized the revival from the pits of Hell to the Garden of Eden, the upward elevation from the debased state of subservience to the status of a freeman, the progress from the subhuman animal-like condition to humanity, as well as the transition from childhood to manhood are, among other themes, paradigmatic motifs to be found in slave narratives.

  • 2 Douglass sold 5, 000 copies in the first four months and 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860.

4Unsurprisingly, Douglass’s and Brown’s narratives, which have been hailed by scholars as seminal fugitive slave autobiographies, share many of these themes. Biographic similarities between the authors could account for this thematic communality. Frederick Douglass was born in Maryland in 1818 and escaped from slavery when he was twenty years old. When his narrative was published, in 1845, it was an immediate success. The narrative went through nine British editions in its first two years (Lee, 10).2 As to Williams Wells Brown, he was born in Kentucky in 1814. He escaped from slavery at the age of nineteen in 1834. In 1847, two years after Douglass, Brown published his own narrative, which was very successful. It reached its ninth American and British edition before 1850 (Brown & Andrews, 3-4). Douglass’s and Brown’s narratives were published by the Anti-Slavery Office of Boston under the supervision of William Lloyd Garrison, the president of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). Before becoming authors, Douglass and Brown had extensive experience as orators. As lecturers for the AASS, they both gained wide notoriety by travelling all over the United States and to Europe in the context of abolitionist circuit tours. Douglass had already acquired oratory skills during bondage by joining a secret debating society club with some friends. Similarly, several years before lecturing for the AASS, Brown had become proficient in public speaking by organizing a temperance society in Buffalo (Farrison, 1948, 29).

5Undoubtedly, these biographical elements influenced the thematic content and overall plot structure of Douglass’s and Brown’s narratives. Yet, an analysis of the paratext, the preface and the exposition scene of these narratives provides a rich insight into the literary techniques and argumentative strategies which served specific ideological purposes.

  • 3 As the Quaker friend who helped William Wells Brown in his escape put it: " Since thee has got out (...)

6The first element which immediately strikes the reader is the syntactic similarity of the titles. We are given the slave’s first and last name, his nationality, his legal status which is followed by the mention “written by himself.” For Douglas and Brown, the very act of signing their narratives with a first and last name was an act of existential affirmation and resistance, as well as a symbol of their transition from a state of minority to manhood.3 Douglass’s name underwent several changes on his path from slavery to freedom. He changed his name from Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Frederick Bailey, then to Frederick Johnson before finally settling for Frederick Douglass (Douglass, 1845, 111-112). As a child, Brown’s mother was forced to change her son’s name from William to Sandford when her master’s white nephew, who was also called William, came to live in the household. Brown resisted this name change and received several whippings for his obstinacy to cling to his former name. While he was still enslaved, Brown recalls how he “was not only hunting for [his] liberty, but also hunting for a name […]” (Brown, 1847, 97-98). After his escape, Brown eventually re-appropriated his first name William. He moreover adopted as a middle and last name, Wells Brown, the name of the Quaker who helped him in his flight (Brown, 1847, 105-106).

  • 4 The formula “An American Slave” replaced “A Fugitive Slave” in Brown’s 1849 British edition.

7Both narratives mention the author’s legal status in their title. By so doing, abolitionists primarily sought to underscore the fact that these accounts were the literary undertakings of slaves who were supposed to be illiterate. Moreover, as these narratives were advertised as being first-hand testimonies of slavery, the author’s enslaved status aroused the public’s curiosity. In Brown’s title, the adjective “fugitive” adds to the clandestinity of the whole enterprise. In Douglass’s case, laying emphasis on his nationality served several purposes.4 First, this indication pointed to the specificity of American slavery as opposed to slavery practiced in other countries. Secondly, the emphasis on the slave’s Americanness has to be analyzed against the backdrop of the colonization movement which was gaining ground in the United States. Since 1819, the American Colonization Society had been striving to send emancipated slaves and free people of color to the newly founded colony of Liberia. However, Garrison and the AASS were adamantly opposed to the colonization scheme which they found preposterous (Garrison). Indeed, abolitionists considered slaves and free people of color as being, first and foremost, Americans, despite their African origins. Finally, the use of the indefinite article “a” or “an” before the slave status of the author proved very judicious. It conveys the idea of indeterminacy. Linguistically speaking, the fugitive or American slave here is the representative of the notional class of slaves. Wisely enough, the indefinite article also plays on its other semantic value, namely the slave’s uniqueness and individuality.

  • 5 Douglass’s narrative was attacked by slavery’s apologists who claimed it had been ghostwritten by w (...)

8The formula “written by himself” might seem redundant as the narrative was supposed to be an autobiography. It served several purposes. Primarily, to highlight the slaves’ mastery of literacy at a time when bondsmen were forbidden to read and write. It also stressed the fact that the slave, as the author of the narrative, claimed its paternity. By the same token, such an indication was meant to discard any accusation as to the narrative having been the work of a white abolitionist ghostwriter.5 Finally, by stressing the absence of an external mediator, even that of a white scribe, the formula partook in conferring greater authenticity to the information found in the narrative.

9Yet, the formula “written by himself” could not in itself affirmatively prove the author’s enslaved status. Thus, in an effort to vouch for the veracity of the accounts, the prefaces to both narratives provide the reader with a plethora of information relative to the circumstances in which the manuscripts were prepared. In Douglass’s preface, Garrison tells us that: “Mr. DOUGLASS has very properly chosen to write his own Narrative, in his own style, and according to the best of his ability, rather than to employ someone else. It is, therefore, entirely his own production” (Douglass, 1845, viii). Likewise, in an introductory letter which appears in Brown’s preface, Edmund Quincy, a white abolitionist, informs the reader that the text is void of any textual editing. Quincy insists that he only corrected clerical errors “committed in the hurry of composition”. He insists that tampering with the manuscript proved unnecessary. Indeed, Quincy acknowledges that he should have been “a bold man, as well as a vain one” if he should have attempted “to improve” Brown’s “descriptions” as some of the “scenes are not unworthy of De Foe himself” (Brown, 1847, vi).

10Besides their title and their authenticating preface, numerous other similarities exist between both narratives. As autobiographies, we expect these accounts to be personal. Yet, an analysis of both exposition scenes reveals a disturbing thematic communality.

II/ Common tropes

11In his groundbreaking essay, James Olney warns any reader who would set about reading slave narratives that he might eventually be disappointed and “dazed by the mere repetitiveness of it all”. According to him, such reading is bound to result in “a sense not of uniqueness but of overwhelming sameness” (46). Olney’s analysis proves correct when we examine Douglass’s and Brown’s exposition scenes. Except for a few minor differences, the gist of both opening chapters is identical. More importantly, their narrated events seem to follow the same order. Among the many similarities between these two accounts, we find a lack of information as to slaves’ date of birth, the emphasis laid on the issue of sexual miscegenation as being a common practice in the slaveholding south and the denunciation of the severing of family ties under slavery. Both narratives immediately set out to give a minute description of slaves’ daily life by explaining their living arrangements and the quasi-military organization of the plantation. In the first pages of both accounts, the reader is confronted to the physical and emotional abuse of vulnerable slaves, more particularly women and children. Brown experiences his mother being flogged as he relentlessly cries, unable to assist her, whereas Douglass recalls how he was “often […] awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks” of his aunt being whipped “upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood” (Douglass, 1845, 6).

12How can we account for the similarities which exist between these two texts? There are many reasons that explain the recurrence of themes in both slave narratives and why their plots seem to follow a set pattern. Douglass’s and Brown’s narratives had their roots in oral stage performances. As such, they were a mere synthesis of speeches that had been delivered before audiences for several years (Stauffer, 2007, 203). Undoubtedly, the material which worked best on stage, in that it produced tangible effects on the listeners−whether it be outrage, horror or sympathy−were retained as being worthy for written publication. Furthermore, the autobiographical form of slave accounts imposed a constraining chronological progression to the narration. Finally, it must be borne in mind that slave narratives were not a sui generis genre.

  • 6 William Wells Brown chose lines from William Cowper as the epigraph to his narrative.

13Although the genre served as a template for subsequent literary works, slave narratives were the progeny of former or contemporary literary movements. The genre emerged between 1840 and 1860 at the time when the Romantic Movement in American literature was in its most influential phase. Slave narratives with their celebration of selfhood corresponded to romantic notions of individualism and independence (Andrews Representation, 78).6 The teleology of slave narratives centered on the moment of freedom (Mccarthy & Doughton, 7). In Douglass’s third paragraph we learn in passing that he “ran away” (Douglass, 1845, 2). However, this proleptic statement does not ruin any suspense in that the reader already knows that the narrator managed to escape. If slave narratives used the escape motif as a structuring device, the emphasis was not necessarily placed on the act of flight itself but rather on the personal development process which led to freedom (Sinanhan, 71). Thus, understandably enough, slave narratives have been compared to Bildungsromans in which a character evolves to become a better person, whilst also serving as an edifying model for the readers (Smith, 33). In both opening chapters, the narrators experience the loss of their innocence and are made aware of their servile status. There is a religious subtext to this loss of innocence as it may be equated to a form of fall which precedes a life of suffering. The reader witnesses the slave narrator’s long and difficult progress which will eventually lead him to freedom, to a New Jerusalem in the north (Foster, 84-85).

14As slave narratives became a popular form of literature and abolitionist propaganda, they were “rewritten to conform to the literary standards of the time” and “tended to become romanticized and moralistic to suit the tastes of Northern and British readers” (Starobin, 48). Certain themes which appealed to the contemporaneous readership were exploited. For instance, the choice of resorting to a whipping scene, especially of slave women, who were oftentimes half-naked, was deliberate. These tales were shocking to nineteenth century readers who, in the context of Victorian decency, found such graphic descriptions disturbing. Providing the reader with slaves’ reaction to violence and abuse proved another effective literary device. By relating the narrator’s feelings and emotions, Douglass’s and Brown’s opening chapters resort to techniques found in sentimental novels and the latter’s literary offshoot: sensibility.

  • 7 The Liberator, 30 May 1845.

15Slave narratives were intended to be inspirational and motivational (Ženíšek, 205). Their overall plot structure resembles melodrama with “vivid, artfully staged episodes” which seek to “draw tears, shock, and anger from the reader” (Matlack, 20). The stress placed on the atrocities of slavery was intended to move the reader emotionally as well as physically, that is to say to make him take action. The review of Douglass’s narrative which appeared in The Liberator clearly illustrates how slave accounts were vested with performative power. According to the reviewer, if the narrative did not “open the eyes of this people, they must be petrified into eternal sleep.”7 The call for the public’s reaction sometimes took the form of a plea. In Brown’s preface, J. C. Hattaway addresses the reader by asking him the following questions: “Reader, are you an Abolitionist? What have you done for the slave?”(Brown, 1847, ix).

  • 8 Brown became a public lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1847. However, he had alrea (...)

16In the opening scene to his narrative, Douglass laments the lack of information and the mystery which shrouded his early life. Interestingly enough, by stepping into the limelight, Douglass, and, later on, Brown, two slaves who had been purposefully left in the dark by their masters, were to shed light on the institution of slavery and enlighten their white audiences.8

III/ The quest for a representative slave

17Slave narratives overtly served an abolitionist agenda. They were wielded as ideological weapons to destroy southern slavery. The 1830’s and 1840’s saw the advent and unprecedented development of more radical abolitionist groups in the United States (Wesley, 32-33; Douglass & Foner, 37-38). These anti-slavery societies rejected gradual emancipation and demanded immediate freedom for the slaves. Anti-slavery societies endeavored to convert as many followers to their cause as possible. To a certain extent, abolitionism resembled a religious crusade which utilized slave narratives as proselytizing tools. Predictably enough, slaveholders and slavery apologists were soon to react. They dismissed abolitionist discourse as being shameless propaganda and defended the peculiar institution on the grounds that it was a positive good.

  • 9 In Douglass’s preface, Garrison describes him as “one of the most efficient advocates of the slave (...)
  • 10 Capitalized in the original.
  • 11 This echoes DuBois’ forethought in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he tells the reader that (...)
  • 12 American abolitionists were merely perfecting the methods which their British counterparts had used (...)

18Hence, abolitionists knew all too well that their message would be more powerful if it were voiced by a slave. Yet, the first representative of the colored population that Garrison was able to find was a free black named Charles Lenox Remond. For many years Remond toured the country as a public lecturer with Garrison. However, Garrison knew that only an eloquent slave could deal a “stunning blow” on the institution of slavery by giving a first-hand account of the ordeals he had been through (Douglass, 1845, vi; xi). This longing for a black orator was finally satisfied when, in August 1841, Garrison was introduced to Frederick Douglass at an antislavery convention in Nantucket. Thereafter, the abolition campaign would gain significant momentum as a slave representative had been found (Douglass, 1845, iii).9 In his introductory letter to Douglass’s narrative, Wendell Phillips praised the fact that thanks to the fugitive slave, Americans would finally be able to hear the other side of the story as they had “been left long enough to gather character of slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters” (Douglass, 1845, xxi). Likewise, in Brown’s preface, Hattaway informs the reader that “[f]ew persons have had greater facilities for becoming acquainted with slavery, in all its horrible aspects, than WILLIAM W. BROWN.”10 Indeed, prefiguring W.E.B Dubois’ later veil, Brown had “been behind the curtain” (Brown, 1847, viii).11 By producing first-hand evidence of the inhumanity of slavery, abolitionists could now consistently oppose the arguments put forward by slaveholders.12 Consequently, slave narratives carefully gave precise historical and geographical details in order to fend off any critiques as to the veracity of the account. Thus, Garrison insists on the fact that Douglass “disclosed the place of his birth, the names of those who claimed ownership in his body and soul, and the names also of those who committed the crimes which he has alleged against them.” Hence, “his statements” could easily be “disproved” if they were “untrue” (Douglass, 1845, xvii).

IV/ Slave representatives

  • 13 As Costronovo posits: “the slave’s accomplishments were not viewed as his own property, but as the (...)

19Lecturing for the AASS was not an easy task. Due to the racism that was prevalent in the north, slave lecturers sometimes faced a hostile audience (Graham, 4). In many lecture halls, Douglass and Brown were physically abused and booed off stage (Douglass, 1881, 234; Patsy, 98-99; Farrison, 15; Levine Martin Delany, 19). Therefore, along with fighting against slavery, abolitionists also had to combat racial prejudice in the north. By having the story told by an articulate and intelligent black orator/narrator, abolitionists sought to debunk rationales of inferiority based on race. Despite these efforts, white audiences remained skeptical. Soon enough, Douglass was denounced to be an impostor who had never been “south of Mason and Dixon’s line” (Douglass, 1855, 362). White audiences were so dumbfounded by Brown’s eloquence, that some journalists attributed it to a form of ventriloquism. Newspapers also imputed his rhetorical skills to his mixed-race ancestry (Castronovo, 211).13 Notwithstanding, abolitionists deemed Brown and Douglass to be good slave representatives because their experience of bondage had placed them in different jobs, whether it was as a domestic servant, a skilled slave, or a field hand.

20When abolitionists resorted to enslaved public speakers for their lectures or insisted on slave accounts being told from the point of view of a homodiegetic narrator, they were placing the “I”/eye at the center of the crusade. Thereby, slave narratives enabled the subjectivisation of bondsmen who were chattel property by law. Douglass’s and Brown’s narrative both start with the personal subject pronoun “I”. They could thus be read as a re-humanizing enterprise as the subject is placed at the center and at the origin of the narrative which is to follow. In both accounts, slaves are depicted as multidimensional characters imbued with feelings whereas slaveholders are portrayed as flat characters. The Manichean dichotomy is all too clear and the villain is easily identified. These narratives partook in dehumanizing slaveholders whilst concomitantly restoring the slave back into the realm of humanity.

  • 14 As slave narratives became a very popular genre some publishers sought to make profits out it (Goul (...)

21Before fugitive slave lecturers took the floor, a white chairman made introductory remarks in which he generally assured an eager audience that this “chattel”, this “piece of southern property” could speak (Douglass, 1881, 218). Quite analogously, slave narratives were introduced by a preface penned by abolitionists. These introductory remarks, or the preface, served to authenticate the lecture, or narrative, which was to follow. In the case of narratives, the authenticating preface was also a means to differentiate them from fictionalized slave biographies which were very popular at the time.14 These prefatory remarks also vouched for the slave’s honesty and good character. Paradoxically enough, by prefacing the narratives, white abolitionists were in fact authorizing the account, thereby placing the slave author in a subordinate position. To what extent were Brown’s and Douglass’s narratives free from major editorial tampering and intrusion?

  • 15 As Marie Jeanne Rossignol and Claire Parfait have noted, it is impossible to ascertain to what exte (...)

22Given the scarcity of sources, the question of editorial intrusion in Douglass’s and Brown’s narratives remains a matter of debate. Nevertheless, a number of objective elements seem to indicate that Douglass’s and Brown’s abolitionist sponsors influenced the content of their narratives. In Brown’s preface, without being specific, Edmund Quincy informs the reader that he suggested “a few curtailments” to the account (Brown, 1847, vi).15 We also have an inkling that some editing process occurred when Wendell Phillips tells us the following about Douglass’s narrative: “In reading your life, no one can say that we have unfairly picked out some rare specimens of cruelty” (Douglass, 1845, xxii). If Phillips’s statement could be interpreted as a guarantee that white abolitionists did not alter the original manuscript in order to serve their agenda, the verb “pick” evidently suggests that some selection was made and that some events were deliberately left out while others were purposefully retained. Moreover, the personal pronoun “we” reinforces the idea that the editorial process was a collegial enterprise. Had Douglass benefitted from full editorial decisionary power Phillip’s sentence would have read: “in reading your life, no one can say you have unfairly picked out […]”. Could it then be argued that Douglass and Brown were only subject to mild editorial pressure and that their narratives anticipated the requirements of the abolitionist agenda?

  • 16 Concerning the constraints placed on Douglass’s first narrative, see Robert S. Levine and Ashraf Ru (...)

23It seems Douglass and Brown were bridled in their expression.16 In his second autobiography published in 1855, Douglass gave an account of the period that preceded the publication of his 1845 narrative. While describing his experience as a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, he recounted one leading abolitionist, John Collins, telling him “give us the facts […] we will take care of the philosophy” (Douglass, 1855, 361). Abolitionists were concerned that Douglass’s rhetorical flourishes would lead the public to doubt that he had ever been a slave. Therefore, Collins advised him that it was “better [to] have a little of that plantation speech than not” and added that it was not “best that [he] seem[ed] so learned” (Douglass, 1855, 362). In the same fashion, just as Douglass was about to step on stage to deliver his lectures, Garrison would whisper to him: “Tell your story, Frederick”. However, the fugitive slave lecturer was finding it hard to comply to the injunction as he “was now reading and thinking” and “[n]ew views of the subject” of slavery “were presented to [his] mind” (Douglass, 1855, 361-362). Evidently, abolitionists needed a slave representative who would conform to their political agenda, not a rebel. Thus, any personal outburst, or even comment, from the fugitive slave was proscribed.

24As early as 1843, Douglass was well aware of the fact that voicing his opinion too vocally could lead him to be severely rebuked. As he recounts:

I believe my first offence against our Anti-Slavery Israel was committed during these Syracuse meetings 1843. Mr. Collins came in with his new friends and doctrines, and proposed to adjourn our anti-slavery discussions and take up the subject of communism. To this I ventured to object. I held that it was imposing an additional burden of unpopularity on our cause, and an act of bad faith with the people, who paid the salary of Mr. Collins, and were responsible for these hundred conventions. Strange to say, my course in this matter did not meet the approval of Mrs. M. W. Chapman, an influential member of the board of managers of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and called out a sharp reprimand from her, for my insubordination to my superiors. This was a strange and distressing revelation to me, and one of which I was not soon relieved. I thought I had only done my duty, and I think so still. The chief reason for the reprimand was the use which the liberty party-papers would make of my seeming rebellion against the commanders of our anti-slavery army. (Douglass, 1881, 231-232). 

25This example is interesting in that it shows how, more than ten years after the incident, Douglass was still very much affected by the way he had been reprimanded. It also clearly demonstrates that slave lecturers were antislavery activists who belonged to a hierarchized organization, which Douglass compares to an “army”. As foot soldiers, they were reminded they had to keep their place and obey to the commands given by their superiors.

26Interestingly enough, Douglass’s narrative was precisely written at the very moment when, to his great despair, his growing desire to venture his personal opinion was being restricted by his sponsors. Indeed, reflecting on the reasons which led to the publication of his narrative, Douglass explained that: “ [in] a little less than four years, therefore, after becoming a public lecturer, I was induced to write out the leading facts connected with my experience in slavery, giving names of persons, places […]”(Douglass, 1855, 363). Douglass asserts that the writing of his narrative was prompted by the public’s growing doubts concerning his enslavement. Yet, the use of the passive form in his justification raises the question of agency. Was the writing of the narrative Douglass’s sole initiative? If so, was Douglass, and later on Brown, free in choosing the “leading facts” of their experience?

  • 17 Namely, James Williams’s, Frederick Douglass’s and William Wells Brown’s narratives. The AASS finan (...)
  • 18 For instance, Douglass accepted an annual salary of $450, which is the equivalent to $34, 000 in to (...)
  • 19 In 1845, Douglass described how The Liberator became his “meat” and his “drink” (Douglass, 1845, 11 (...)

27Given that both narratives were produced within a constraining framework, a combination of factors influenced their form and ideological content. It is hard to fathom that the AASS, which only financed the publication of three slave narratives, did not closely supervise their editorial process.17 Moreover, as the aforementioned Syracuse incident shows, it is highly improbable that slave authors, who were financially dependent on the abolitionist society for their livelihood as lecturers, were prone to contradict editing decisions made by their employers.18 Whereas economic factors undoubtedly played a role in restricting fugitive slave lecturers’ / authors’ freedom of expression, other more subtle reasons contributed to their ideological alignment. As Douglass’s vocal opposition to Collin’s initiative illustrates, portraying Douglass and Brown as passive instrumentalized agents in the abolitionist crusade against slavery would be altogether incorrect and simplistic. Both lecturers’ worldview was strongly influenced by the abolitionist ideology to which they adhered and were deeply committed. For instance, before becoming a lecturer for the AASS, Frederick Douglass had been an avid reader of The Liberator for three years. He was impregnated by the abolitionist newspaper’s rhetoric and literary discursive codes. Douglass was fascinated by its editor, Garrison, whom he considered to be a “hero” and a “Moses, raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage”. Douglass explained how reading The Liberator on a weekly basis and mastering its contents, as well as listening to Garrison, enabled him to get “a clear comprehension of the principles of the anti-slavery movement(Douglass, 1881, 214-215).19 So strong was Douglass’s reverence and deference for the president of the AASS that, in 1852, he confided privately to Charles Sumner that their relationship resembled “something like that of a child to a parent” (quoted in Andrews, 1986, 234). Given the peculiar nature of their relationship, Douglass was certainly more inclined to make concessions when negotiating with his mentor Garrison. Douglass’s inferior position in the relationship might also account for the paternalistic and somewhat condescending tone Garrison uses in the 1845 narrative to present his slave protégé. In the preface, Garrison informs the reader that Douglass “has borne himself with gentleness and meekness, yet with true manliness of character” (Douglass, 1845, xii). Here, Garrison lauds Douglass’s valiancy in attacking the peculiar institution. Yet, in keeping with the racial etiquette of the time, his demeanor and docility are praised too. Paradoxically enough, these latter qualities were often to be found in certificates of good conduct masters had to deliver to court before they could emancipate a slave. In the same vein, stressing Douglass’s gentleness and meekness, which are either childlike characteristics or stereotypical feminine traits, has an emasculating - or at least, subduing - effect on his manliness, thereby relegating him to the status of a minor.

  • 20 As William Andrews has noted, as “public men and professional fugitives these men were the creature (...)

28Ultimately, in both narratives, the issue is not so much about the truth of the narrated events but rather on what white abolitionist editors suggested Douglass and Brown should emphasize, or thematize, in order to make their message more forceful and credible. Abolitionists needed slave representatives to give credence and impetus to their movement in order to achieve the immediate abolition of slavery. Thus, abolitionists fashioned the slave’s image, speech, and narrative according to what a nineteenth-century white audience or readership was ready to hear or believe. Yet, in their endeavor to disprove the stereotype of the animal-like illiterate slave, abolitionists created a new mold and archetype which fugitive bondsmen had to conform to. As Olney puts it: “in one sense the narrative lives of the ex-slaves were as much possessed and used by the abolitionists as their actual lives had been by slaveholders” (1984, 51).20 By suggesting “a few curtailments” to fugitive slaves’ lives, abolitionist editors involuntarily erased bondsmen’s personal experiences in an endeavor to make them representative of the experience of slaves in general. By so doing, multiple voices were subsumed into one and became a “collective utterance” (Gates, 2). Thus, the personal pronoun subject “I” in slave narratives bears a holistic value and stands for “we,” namely all slaves.

29This collectivization of the slave voice and experience is perfectly exemplified in Douglass’s and Brown’s exposition scenes. For instance, Brown’s narrator speaks of slavery as from a distance. He seems to be an outside observer from within: “I have often laid and heard the crack of the whip and the screams of the slave” (Brown, 1847, 15). Here, the use of the definite article “the” to determine the noun “slave” is somewhat problematic. By conveying a sense of distance, the objectivisation of the subject-matter discredits to some extent Brown’s testimony. The narrator’s estrangement is further compounded when he admits that, as a house slave, he received preferential treatment in comparison to field hands. The whipping scene in Brown’s opening chapter is also worth commenting on. The succession of sentences, all coordinated with the conjunction “and” seeks to imitate a child’s speech and adds to the dramatic quality of this event. This ongoing enumeration gives a slow-motion cinematic effect to the scene as it seems the narrative time has come to a halt. In keeping with slave narratives’ intention of re-humanizing slaves, the only spoken words in this passage are the reported verbatim cries of Brown’s mother. As the atrocity of the scene slowly unfolds, the reader can only sympathize with the child who is vicariously experiencing his mother’s pain as she is being whipped. Only the most callous-hearted reader can remain unmoved when he learns that Brown could hear his mother in the distance cry “Oh!pray- Oh!pray- Oh!pray”. Yet, this moment of intense sympathy is somewhat spoilt by the following sentence which reads “these are generally the words of the slaves when imploring mercy at the hands of their oppressors” (Brown, 1847, 15). Although this shift from the personal to the collective, from the particular to the general, was intended to stress the hardships which slaves had to go through, it ultimately weakens the persuasive power of the event and even discredits Brown’s personal experience by diluting it into a communal experience, thereby depriving him of his singularity.

30Ahsraf Rushdy has convincingly argued that by strictly conforming to an ideological abolitionist agenda, and in an effort to satisfy readers’ expectations, slave narrators were dispossessed of their story through mediation. By asking slaves to be as specific as possible in their description of slavery, the narrator became the “eye witness” of slavery and not the personal subject pronoun “I”, who was witnessing and giving a personal account of his experience under slavery (118). From the outset, this sociological approach is found in Brown’s and Douglass’s narratives in which daily plantation life is minutely described. Slave accounts sought to represent slavery in the most objective way. Yet, in an effort to make slave narratives as encompassing as possible of all the aspects of life under slavery, abolitionist editors stripped the slave observer of his subjectivity by collectivizing his experience. Consequently, the slave’s voice was not the only one to be heard in slave narratives (Sekora). How did slave authors react to the relative silencing of their voice, more specifically to the transformation of their narratives into echo chambers wherein multiple voices expressed themselves and reverberated?

V/ Self-(re)presentation?

31The question of how slavery was to be represented was intricately connected to a power struggle between slave authors and white abolitionists. By gaining access to literacy, the slave was able to write himself into being (Davis & Gates, xxiii). Over time, being mere delegates of the abolitionist cause proved untenable for Douglass and Brown as they yearned for self-representation. Douglass became frustrated. As he recounted in his second autobiography, he “was growing, and needed room”. His views on slavery had evolved and it did not “entirely satisfy” him to “narrate wrongs” “night after night” in a “mechanical” way. He now “felt like denouncing them” (Douglass, 1855, 361-362). From the role of a passive story teller, or observer, Douglass felt an earnest desire to comment upon slavery, to give his own personal interpretation. Yet, Garrison insisted that Douglass conform to his story.

  • 21 Regarding prejudice, as early as 1855, Douglass explained how abolitionists “[I]n their eagerness, (...)

32Other reasons may also have contributed to Douglass’s growing bitterness. Although Douglass attracted huge audiences to his lectures, he received less pay than white agents of the society (Stauffer, 2007, 208). Moreover, Douglass undoubtedly suffered from the racial prejudice which existed among abolitionists. In 1856, he wrote that “opposing slavery and hating its victims” was “a very common form of abolitionism” (Matlack, 15).21 In an attempt to gain more freedom of expression, Douglass set about to launch an abolitionist newspaper with the help of some British friends and benefactors. Garrison was reluctant to let Douglass step down from the stage to undertake editorial work. He refused to relinquish any further responsibilities to Douglass other than being a lecturer (Sinanhan, 69). In order to quell Douglass’s desire to create his own paper, Garrison arranged to have him contribute to abolitionist newspapers, thereby keeping him indirectly under some kind of editorial control (Patsy, 98). Ultimately, although Garrison opposed the idea, Douglass broke free from the yoke of his sponsor and, in 1847, created his own newspaper The North Star (Levine, 1997, 19-20). Douglass justified his decision to launch his anti-slavery newspaper by saying that “it is evident” that blacks “must be [their] own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but not peculiarly - not distinct from, but in connection with [their] white friends” (cited in Martin, 30). The emphasis placed on cooperation seems to further accredit the fact that Douglass’s former dealings with white abolitionists were based on a relationship of subordination.

  • 22 Charles Lenox Remond and James McCune Smith were also women suffrage activists (Quarles, 35). The m (...)

33Eventually, over time, Brown and Douglass chose to leave the narrow confines of abolitionism. They both enlarged their field of political and social activism by, for instance, becoming zealous advocates for women’s rights.22 By representing and fighting for another oppressed group, they adopted a humanist approach which transcended and transgressed racial as well as gender borders. They were all the freer to distance themselves from their former white sponsors’ guiding influence that after 1847 and 1854, Douglass and Brown had respectively managed, with the help of English friends, to buy their freedom from their masters (Wu, 48; Brown & Greenspan, xxxii).

  • 23 However, “so much more concerned was Brown with argument than with art that he left in the story nu (...)

34Literary-wise, in the 1850’s, both sought to abandon the traditional slave narrative genre by trying their hands at writing novels. Although Brown’s Clotel or the President’s Daughter was published while he was in England in 1853, it is credited as being the first novel written by an African-American. The same year, Frederick Douglass published his novel entitled The Heroic Slave. By writing literature, Brown and Douglass were now creating fictional characters and were, theoretically, no longer literally representing themselves in the diegetic foreground. However, both authors chose not to make a complete and radical transition from the autobiographic genre, and its representation of real life events, to literary fiction. Although they were prose fiction, Brown’s and Douglass’s novels were historically grounded and still strove to fight against slavery.23 Brown elaborated his plot on the rumors of Thomas Jefferson’s supposedly slave mistress and her mulatto daughters. Douglass chose to fictionalize the story of a real slave, Madison Washington, who was the instigator of a slave revolt on a vessel in 1841. Ironically, Douglass was editing another slave’s biography and romancing it.

35As Brown and Douglass gained more authorial and editorial freedom, both undertook to rewrite the narratives of their lives. To what extent did they remain faithful to their first autobiography? Although Clotel is a work of fiction, a fifty-two page sketch of Brown’s life precedes the novel. There are striking differences between his 1847 account and his 1853 life sketch. The shortened length of the second narrative could explain some of these differences. Yet, an analysis of the opening paragraphs of both accounts tends to confirm that abolitionist editors did influence the content of the first narrative. This comparative analysis seems to partially contradict Sterling Bland’s assertion that slave “[…] narratives each convey a genuine sense of the ways these writers used language, structured their writing, and chose which aspects of their lives to present and extrapolate into deeper significance regarding themselves and the relationship of that individual self to the collective” (Bland, xiv).

  • 24 Bold text not in the original.
  • 25 Bold text not in the original.

Narrative of William W. Brown, 1847

(first paragraph, p. 13).24

Narrative of The Life And Escape Of William Wells Brown. In Clotel, 1853

(first paragraph, p. 1).25

I WAS born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.

WILLIAM WELLS BROWN, the subject of this narrative, was born a slave in Lexington, Kentucky, not far from the residence of the late Hon. Henry Clay. His mother was the slave of Doctor John Young. His father was a slaveholder, and, besides being a near relation of his master, was connected with the Wicklief family, one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most aristocratic of the Kentucky planters. Dr. Young was the owner of forty or fifty slaves, whose chief employment was in cultivating tobacco, hemp, corn, and flax. The Doctor removed from Lexington, when William was five or six years old, to the state of Missouri, and commenced farming in a beautiful and fertile valley, within a mile of the Missouri river.

36As the comparative table above shows, Brown resorts to third-person narration in his 1853 narrative. Not only does this shift in pronoun partake in creating a sense of subjective distancing which tends to objectify him, it also requalifies his narrative into a biography. In the 1853 account, Brown is less affirmative about his father’s race, which is not even mentioned. Likewise, whereas the first narrative immediately thematized the issue of miscegenation in order to denounce the hypocrisy of slaveholders who sexually abused their female slaves, Brown’s 1853 sketch does not elaborate on the issue. Finally, Brown’s mother, who is named in the first paragraph of the 1847 narrative, in an effort to humanize slaves, is anonymized and reduced to her maternal child-bearing function in the second narrative. One cannot give a definite answer to account for the thematic variations between Brown’s two narratives. However, these differences do inform us on Brown’s new (or initial?) thematic choices. They also reveal the personal narrative ordering Brown made when he no longer depended nor collaborated with the AASS for the publication of his work. In other words, this is how he now (re)presented himself.

  • 26 The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom: A Drama, in Five Acts by William Wells Brown, was published in (...)

37After 1856, Brown stopped touring for the AASS and devoted his time to giving lectures and reading his drama on stage (Ernest, 1109).26 Brown’s plays revolved around slavery. In the preface to his play The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom, Brown authenticated some of the events that were to follow as having been personally experienced by him during his enslavement (Abramson, 372). In so doing, Brown was self-authenticating the verisimilitude of fictional events in the hope that his readers would suspend their disbelief. It is interesting to note that, even though the piece was fictional, Brown could not refrain from representing himself and staging events from his personal life thus blending reality and fiction. Moreover, by singly performing all the roles on stage, Brown was subsuming a multiplicity of voices, across racial and gender lines, into his.

38It is beyond the scope of this present article to examine the post-Civil War writings of Brown and Douglass. Yet, an analysis of Brown’s self-published last autobiography My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People (1880) offers further evidence that his later narratives seem “carefully designed to deindividualize the narrator, to distance his voice and his experience from that of Brown” (Brown & Andrews, 9-10). In My Southern Home Brown resorts to fictional characters who are modeled on real people from his personal experience. There are striking omissions in Brown’s last autobiography. For instance, the whipping scene of his mother, which is told in the first chapter of his 1847 and 1853 narratives, go unmentioned in My Southern Home (Brown & Andrews, 9-10; Brown & Greenspan, xxxiv). The abolition of slavery after the Civil War might explain why, in 1881, Brown thought it was unnecessary to evoke life events which had formerly been emphasized on in order to sensitize his readership to the atrocities of the peculiar institution.

39Strikingly enough, prior to the general emancipation of slaves, Douglass already chose to relegate slavery to the background setting of his second autobiography. This shift of primary focus enabled him to insert more details about his personal (inner) life by leaving the formulaic ordering of information, which characterized slave narratives. The repetition of the personal possessive pronoun in the title of Douglass’s 1855 narrative My Bondage and My Freedom, could be interpreted as an act of (re)appropriation of his life story. Indeed, the reflexive pronoun we find in the title of his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself, stressed the fact that he was the real author. Yet, the use of a third person pronoun gives the impression that the author of the narrative is being introduced by a third party. Moreover, the co-referential relation between the reflexive pronoun and its antecedent conveys a sense of disjunction between the subject of the narrative and its author. In his 1855 narrative, the use of the possessive personal pronoun “my” creates a tight relationship between Douglass and his autobiography which partakes in enhancing the referential stabilization of the author’s identity. Contrary to Brown, whose choice to fictionalize himself constituted an act of self-effacement, Douglass’s later works were growingly a “literary act of self-presentation” in which he “asserted a much stronger sense of individuality” (Moses Creative Conflict 63-65). This tendency was not characteristic of his later autobiographies but found its origin as early as 1851 when he decided to rename The North Star the Frederick Douglass Paper, a decision Garrison, who had, by then, become his detractor, believed demonstrated uncontrollable egotism (McKivigan, 216; Waldo 39).

  • 27 Namely, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). In 18 (...)
  • 28 By then, Garrison had stopped recommending Douglass’s newspaper The North Star as being an abolitio (...)
  • 29 Moreover, as the title My Bondage and My Freedom suggests, one half of the book is dedicated to his (...)
  • 30 By which he meant that “Naturalists tell us that a full grown man is a resultant or representative (...)

40Altogether, Douglass wrote four autobiographies during his lifetime. In the process, he rewrote himself.27 By the time Douglass’s second autobiography was published in 1855, his divorce with Garrison was already consumed (Olney, 1984, 64).28 His second autobiography took twice as many words to tell the story of his life under slavery until the moment of his escape (Matlack, 23).29 This wordiness could be interpreted as Douglass’s growth but also to the fact that his expression was now unleashed. Quite tellingly, Dr. James McCune Smith, an African-American physician, wrote the preface to his second autobiography, thereby officially severing Douglass’s filiation with white paternalist authenticators. In the preface, McCune Smith referred to Douglass as a “Representative American man.”30

41Like Brown, a comparison of Douglass’s second autobiography with his first narrative reveals striking differences (see table below).

  • 31 Bold text not in the original.
  • 32 Bold text not in the original.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845).31

My Freedom and My Bondage (1855).32

I WAS born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland (p.1; first page of the narrative).

 It was in this dull, flat, and unthrifty district, or neighborhood, surrounded by a white population of the lowest order, indolent and drunken to a proverb, and among slaves, who seemed to ask, “Oh! what’s the use?” every time they lifted a hoe, that I--without any fault of mine--was born and spent the first years of my childhood (p.34; second page of the narrative).

My mother was named Harriet Bailey (p.2; second page of the narrative).

The daughters of my grandmother were five in number. Their names were JENNY, ESTHER, MILLY, PRISCILLA, and HARRIET. The daughter last named was my mother, of whom the reader shall learn more by-and by (p.38; sixth page of the narrative).

My father was a white man. (p.2; second page of the narrative).

My father was a white man, or nearly white. (p.52, twentieth page of the narrative)

I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs […] (p.1, first page of the narrative).

Living here, with my dear old grandmother and grandfather, it was a long time before I knew myself to be a slave (p.38; sixth page of the narrative).

Concerning his mother:

She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work (p.3, third page of the narrative).

Concerning his mother:

[…] she seldom had leisure, by day, for the performance of the journey. The nights and the distance were both obstacles to her visits. She was obliged to walk, unless chance flung into her way an opportunity to ride; and the latter was sometimes her good luck. But she always had to walk one way or the other (p.54, twenty-second page of the narrative).

No information concerning his mother’s ability to read.

I learned, after my mother’s death, that she could read, and that she was the only one of all the slaves and colored people in Tuckahoe who enjoyed that advantage […]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 (pp.57-58, twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth page of the narrative).

  • 33 Waldo E. Martin attributes this “lost white patrimony”, in the 1855 narrative, to Douglass’s “chang (...)

42Whereas Douglass’s first narrative immediately immersed the reader behind the curtain of slavery through the I/eye of the narrator, Douglass’s second autobiography starts with a spatial description. Unlike the straightforward first sentence of his first autobiography, which gave information about his birth, in his second narrative, Douglass uses a long windy description, on the second page, to explain how and where he was born. In the 1845 narrative, there is a movement from the personal subject “I” to the outside world, which symbolically imitates a birth. In the second autobiography, Douglass first takes the reader on a tour of Talbot County, and then introduces its white and black inhabitants, before finally mentioning his birth on the second page of the narrative. Likewise, we have this same dilatory impression in relation to his mother’s identity. She only appears at a much later time in the second narrative, just like his father who, surprisingly, happens to have slightly changed races!33 Moreover, in his second narrative, Douglass offers the reader much more information concerning his mother. For instance, he reiterates that she would pay him visits at night by walking twelve miles on foot. However, he nuances this assertion by saying that she sometimes was lucky to ride on a horse. Interestingly enough, the first narrative portrays his mother as a reified child-bearing field-hand which was a mere stranger to Douglass. However, ten years later, Douglass evokes detailed episodes of tenderness between him and his mother, for example when she offered him a large ginger “sweet cake” in the shape of a heart (Douglass, 1855, 56). More importantly, the first narrative does not mention the crucial information concerning Douglass’s mother’s literacy. Could this omission be attributed to the fact that it didn’t exactly fit the portrayal that abolitionists wanted to give of female field slaves? Finally, whereas the narrative published by the Anti-Slavery office immediately stressed Douglass’s slave status, the second narrative, much later on in the narration, informs us that the narrator had no inkling that he was a slave for “a long time”.

  • 34 Douglass’s 1845 narrative is replete with hypotactic constructions. Yet, contrary to his second nar (...)

43In 1855, Douglass had grown as an author. Whilst remaining an intradiegetic-homodiegetic narrator, Douglass offers greater access to his consciousness by giving the reader more psychological insight. He also adopts a more omniscient narratorial stance when, for instance, he speculates on what the slaves of Talbot County were thinking about. Furthermore, he displays the richness of his descriptive vocabulary in an attempt to demonstrate his artistic literary progress. In 1855, it seems Douglass is no longer caught up in the immediate flow of events and adopts a more analytical point of view. He substitutes more of the factual paratactic constructions, which are typical of speech, for greater poetic license.34 Whereas, in 1845, Douglass was pressed for facts by white abolitionist editors, in 1855, in the third chapter of his autobiography entitled “The Author’s Parentage”, he begs for the reader’s patience: “If the reader will now be kind enough to allow me time to grow bigger, and afford me an opportunity for my experience to become greater, I will tell him something, by-and-by, of slave life, as I saw, felt, and heard it […]” (Douglass, 1855, 51). In 1855, Douglass was unrestrained by any editorial control. He could now present to the reader, at his own pace, the facts concerning his life, during and after his enslavement, as well as his sensory perceptions. More importantly, he could now expose his personal point of view and “take care of the philosophy”, by, for example, reflecting on how his “new circumstances” in life had fostered his “mental development” and made him “re-think” the Garissonian ideology he had formerly been fervently committed to (Douglass, 1855, 395-397).

44In the wake of the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Brown and Douglass grew restive and espoused more radical views. By deciding to abandon pacific resistance through the use of moral suasion, which they felt was an ineffective means of action, both no longer fit the meek, gentle and kind description their abolitionist mentors had given of them in their first narrative (Douglass, 1845, xii; Brown, 1847, ix; Sinanhan, 69; Farrison, 33; Stauffer, 2009, 24; Goldstein 66; Brown, 1863, 5). Although they used different methods, Brown and Douglass engaged in political activism and became race leaders. Brown started to give historical lectures as a means to social reform. His mode of self-representation took the form of political pamphleteering, wherein he became the voice and representative of his race. Unlike his former experience as a fugitive slave representative, who was asked by white abolitionists to recite mechanically the ordeals he had gone through, Brown was now adopting an analytical, critical and radical stance. In 1855, Brown published one of his lectures in pamphlet form: St. Domingo: Its Revolutions and Its Patriots. Brown warned Americans that “[a]lready the slave in his chains, in the rice swamps of Carolina and the cotton fields of Mississippi, burn[t] for revenge.” If southern slaves were to rebel, as they Dominguan slaves had in the 1790’s, Brown felt confident that the “God of Justice [would] be on the side of the oppressed blacks”. Brown insisted that African-Americans were ready to fight and die for their freedom (Brown, 1855). Brown’s lectures and historical writings also sought to inscribe the role of blacks in world history by stressing their accomplishments and by representing them in a different way. For example, in his 1863 The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, Brown strove to refute the “misrepresentations” that were circulated concerning “Negro” supposed “natural inferiority”. He hoped to show that blacks were “endowed with those intellectual and amiable qualities which adorn and dignify human nature” (Brown, Black Man, 5-6). As for Douglass, who had kindly been reminded by his abolitionists mentors to stick to his “simple narrative” and refrain from expressing his “moral indignation for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy”, he actively engaged in politics. He first overtly supported the Liberty Party, then, in 1855, participated in the creation of the Radical Abolitionist Party, which called for the immediate abolition of slavery (Douglass, 1855, 361; Breiseth, 10; Levine, 1997, 72). In August 1859, Douglass’s growing radicalism even led him to meet John Brown in Rochester. John Brown sought to convince Douglass to take part in his October attack on Harper’s Ferry. However, Brown deemed the plan too risky and declined the offer (Wu, 56-57).

45When the Civil War broke out and the Union army allowed black soldiers to enlist, Douglass and Brown actively took part in the recruitment of soldiers. By so doing, Douglass and Brown were no longer pleading “the cause” of their enslaved “brethren” to white audiences in the hope the latter would provide them with assistance in putting an end to slavery (Douglass, 1845, 115). Douglass and Brown were now exhorting their brethren to take up arms in order to fight for their own freedom and for the full recognition of their manhood (Brown, & Greenspan, 329-330; Russell & Wagner, 55).

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1 Among the many subsequent African American texts which have been described as being the literary descendants of slave narratives, we may cite Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901), Richard Wright, Black Boy, Ernest Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, (1971) and Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987).

2 Douglass sold 5, 000 copies in the first four months and 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860.

3 As the Quaker friend who helped William Wells Brown in his escape put it: " Since thee has got out of slavery, thee has become a man, and men always have two names." (Brown, 1847, 105).

4 The formula “An American Slave” replaced “A Fugitive Slave” in Brown’s 1849 British edition.

5 Douglass’s narrative was attacked by slavery’s apologists who claimed it had been ghostwritten by white abolitionists (Dickson, 34). In another instance, until 1981, Harriet Ann Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was thought to have been written by a white woman (Mulvey, 17).

6 William Wells Brown chose lines from William Cowper as the epigraph to his narrative.

7 The Liberator, 30 May 1845.

8 Brown became a public lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1847. However, he had already started lecturing for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society as early as 1843.

9 In Douglass’s preface, Garrison describes him as “one of the most efficient advocates of the slave population” and adds that “the free colored population of the United States are as ably represented by one of their own number, in the person of CHARLES LENOX REMOND” (Douglass, 1845, v).

10 Capitalized in the original.

11 This echoes DuBois’ forethought in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he tells the reader that “leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deep recesses” (viii).

12 American abolitionists were merely perfecting the methods which their British counterparts had used in the 18th century. In England, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. Along with the help of Members of Parliament, notably William Wilberforce, these abolitionists sought to convince British opinion of the inhumanity of slavery by exposing the tools used to torture slaves, by using the testimony of sailors who had witnessed the atrocities of the middle passage, by distributing pamphlets and by organizing lectures.

13 As Costronovo posits: “the slave’s accomplishments were not viewed as his own property, but as the illicit fruits of white patriarchy” (211).

14 As slave narratives became a very popular genre some publishers sought to make profits out it (Gould, 23). As a result, antislavery novels, that is to say fictional narratives, would take their inspiration from real narratives using fictional editors who would authenticate the story (Sinanhan, 70).

15 As Marie Jeanne Rossignol and Claire Parfait have noted, it is impossible to ascertain to what extent Brown’s original text underwent modifications, as the manuscript no longer exists (Brown, Rossignol & Parfait, 22).

16 Concerning the constraints placed on Douglass’s first narrative, see Robert S. Levine and Ashraf Rushdy (Levine, 2009, 32; Rushdy, 1999, 118).

17 Namely, James Williams’s, Frederick Douglass’s and William Wells Brown’s narratives. The AASS financed the publication of Williams’s narrative which had been written by the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf. However, when serious concerns about the narrative’s authenticity were raised, the AASS chose to stop its sale. Surprisingly, a recent study asserts that Brown financed the publication of the 3, 000 copies of the first edition of his own narrative for the amount of $326 (Brown, Rossignol & Parfait, 29-31). Yet, the title page of the 1847 edition bears the stamp of the Anti-Slavery Office and indicates the narrative was published at number 25 Cornhill in Boston, like Douglass’s.

18 For instance, Douglass accepted an annual salary of $450, which is the equivalent to $34, 000 in today’s money (Stauffer, 2009, 15; 18).

19 In 1845, Douglass described how The Liberator became his “meat” and his “drink” (Douglass, 1845, 117).

20 As William Andrews has noted, as “public men and professional fugitives these men were the creatures of abolitionism” whose “literary autonomy” was “restricted by those who seemed to encourage them most in their literary efforts” (Andrews, 1986, 106).

21 Regarding prejudice, as early as 1855, Douglass explained how abolitionists “[I]n their eagerness, sometimes, to show their contempt for the feeling […] proved that they had not entirely recovered from it” (Douglass 1855, 398). This prejudice was often expressed by racial condescension that took the form of romantic primitivism in which African-Americans were perceived as noble savages (Gould, 25).

22 Charles Lenox Remond and James McCune Smith were also women suffrage activists (Quarles, 35). The motto of The North Star was "Right is of no Sex - Truth is of no Color - God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren."

23 However, “so much more concerned was Brown with argument than with art that he left in the story numerous inaccuracies in setting and plot which he could have easily eliminated” (Farrison, 32).

24 Bold text not in the original.

25 Bold text not in the original.

26 The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom: A Drama, in Five Acts by William Wells Brown, was published in Boston in 1858. It is considered to be the first play of African American authorship published in America.

27 Namely, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). In 1892, Douglass published an expanded version of his 1881 autobiography. If his second autobiography was an immediate success and sold 15, 000 copies in two months, both editions of his last autobiography were a commercial failure (Lee, xv; xvii).

28 By then, Garrison had stopped recommending Douglass’s newspaper The North Star as being an abolitionist publication worth reading (Costronovo, 211).

29 Moreover, as the title My Bondage and My Freedom suggests, one half of the book is dedicated to his life as a freeman.

30 By which he meant that “Naturalists tell us that a full grown man is a resultant or representative of all animated nature on this globe; beginning with the early embryo state, then representing the lowest forms of organic life, and passing through every subordinate grade or type, until he reaches the last and highest – manhood” (Douglass, 1855, xxv).

31 Bold text not in the original.

32 Bold text not in the original.

33 Waldo E. Martin attributes this “lost white patrimony”, in the 1855 narrative, to Douglass’s “changing character of his race pride.” He goes on to say that “ [t]his evasive insinuation obscured his white patrimony and enhanced his black identity at the crucial juncture where he was fast becoming the representative Negro American and preeminent race leader” (Waldo 96-97). Quite surprisingly, in his 1881 autobiography, Douglass tells us that he knows nothing of his father: “Of my father I know nothing” (Douglass, 1881, 15).

34 Douglass’s 1845 narrative is replete with hypotactic constructions. Yet, contrary to his second narrative, his first autobiography contains more simple straightforward sentences and compound sentences linked by coordinators, notably “and”, which sometimes gives the impression of the juxtaposition of elements.

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Lawrence Aje, « Fugitive Slave Narratives and the (Re)presentation of the Self? The Cases of Frederick Douglass and William Brown », L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 215 | 2013, mis en ligne le 27 novembre 2014, consulté le 28 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Lawrence Aje

Université Paul Valéry Montpellier,

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