At the start of Monday’s class, I asked you to consider the following statement: “If Franklin erased the quotation marks from the title of the course—“American” autobiography—Frederick Douglass puts them firmly back in place.”
We discussed the obvious ways in which those quotation marks simply recognize that Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish subject, the Puritans were subjects of the English crown, and to name as unequivocally “American” the cultural artifacts produced by diverse Native peoples is close-minded and unjust to say the very least. The quotation marks here acknowledge a kind of violence and loss at the heart of what would become “America.” But in Franklin–with his seeming invulnerability, with the almost ritual sense of accomplishment we witness in his Autobiography, with an autobiographical subject increasingly consumed by the burgeoning power structures of America itself–these quotation marks seem less necessary. In writing the story of his childhood, he offered an allegory for American ascendancy based on virtue and industry, but also based on a sense of privilege that was constitutionally denied to others.
The quotation marks helps us keep the idea of America–what it means, what it offers, what it withholds–in question. And in Douglass, those marks come back. Two years after the fugitive slave law of 1850, he gave a talk “commemorating” Independence Day. The talk was titled “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July.” Early in the speech, he eloquently spells out the clear irony: “Fellow-Citizens, pardon me,” he asks, “why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?” He answers his own rhetorical question, observing: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!” Even after he would become a full American citizen with voting rights, and even though Douglass strategically harnesses Revolutionary history in his Narrative, his real concerns are with the oppressed, the disenfranchised. What bonds people together is less the idealistic trappings of nation and more a sense of relationality—the shared experience of oppression. Douglass’s participation in agitating for women’s voting rights–even before the Civil War–shows his finely tuned sense of linked oppressions, how none are free until all are free.
We might think of those quotation marks in another sense as well. Paul Gilroy coined the term Black Atlantic to describe the emergence, in the 19th century, of a group of black intellectuals whose connections, concerns, and international travels (Douglass, we remember, left to lecture in England shortly after publishing his Narrative) linked them with one another in a way that transcended any narrow ideology of nation–an ideology that at first excluded him. The quotation marks, then, encourage us to consider a broader transnational movement of ideas and peoples.
After noting certain important aspects of Douglass’s background–his role as a newspaper man, starting the North Star upon his return from England; the massive commercial success of his Narrative; his break with the abolitionists who sponsored his work at first–we discussed the generic connections and distinctions that arise when we look at the slave narrative in relation to other forms of autobiography studied thus far. The most germane genre seemed to be the captivity narrative (with its roots in Puritan autobiography), though the slave narrative offers an important reversal that Douglass, with his rhetorical obsession with chiasmus, must have appreciated: the slave in this case is the civilizing presence as the dominant “civilization” appears increasingly savage. The strains of “Providence” are present in Douglass as they were in Rowlandson, but they are much quieter in Douglass.
We also noted the precedence of Franklin’s canonical Autobiograpy as well in the emphasis on industry; the importance of literacy–so much can be accomplished through intentional use of language and rhetoric; and the importance of self-definition. Furthermore, both Franklin and Douglass emerge from a system of failed paternal control and leadership as they enter a period of mobility in escaping those confines–Franklin in escaping his father and bother and moving from Boston to Philadelphia, and Douglass in escaping his master on the plantation before moving to Baltimore, and finally to the North. Spatiality, to invoke a key concept from Smith and Watson, is key here–physical movement enables many other forms of growth and movement. We might even think of this simple idea of geographical relocation, the possibilities it holds, as a core concern of American literature more generally.
But there are key difference in Franklin and Douglass as well. Douglass is unable to offer an authorizing family genealogy at the start of his Narrative. And even after Douglass makes it North, it is clear that racial prejudice keeps him from performing the kind of work that he best suited to (we learn near the end of the Narrative that “among white calkers, that they refused to work with me, and of course I could get no employment”(428). Simply comparing the frontispiece of Franklin’s Autobiography and Douglass’s Narrative reveals an important difference: Franklin appears a man in full in his classic portrait; Douglass appears literally emerging as his photographic image fades into outline below the bust. There’s both a positive sense of emergence here, as Andrea and Angela noted in class, but also a powerful sense of erasure and incompletion. Douglass’s Narrative is pitched at that precise moment of deepest problem and profound possibility.
We also managed to address the important issue of coaxers and coaches as we discussed the prefatory materials preceding Douglass’s Narrative. But when our subject is both autobiography in general and the autobiographical texts themselves, it can be difficult to strike a balance between broader reflection on the genre and specific attention to the text. On Monday, I think I erred on the side of that broader approach and we didn’t get to visit many particulars from the text. On Wednesday, we rectified this situation somewhat, paying close attention to Douglass’s use of chiasmus and dwelling on that stunning scene of song and singing early in the Narrative. But as I learned from reading the questions you jotted down for our quiz, we left much untouched: how does Douglass control the audience’s emotional response throughout the Narrative? Why does he withhold emotional response when describing his mother’s death at the beginning of the Narrative, but then offer an almost stage-like set piece when he heavily sentimentalizes the sad abandonment of his grandmother later in the text, tugging unrelenting on our heart strings? And, a related question: how does Douglass mark the difference between his narrating “I” and narrated “I.” I found the Narrative to be full of reversals, where he was a reflecting on his “brutish” state in one paragraph, and then soliloquizing eloquently in the next. What purpose do these abrupt reversals serve, and how can we related them to the broader chiastic structure of the narrative, both on the level of sentence and plot? How is the trope of literacy throughout tied at times to nautical imagery, and what might be the significance of that knowing that Douglass would eventually escape via a boat? We could ask a dozen questions about the challenging importance of relationality in Douglass’s text–a topic I commented on (as did Jamie and Jared) in relation to Brendan’s post. Needless to say, I find Douglass endlessly generative, even in the third or fourth reading. I hope you did as well, and I wish we could have touched on all of these things.
I was glad that we were able to reading the anonymous “Recollection” from the recently published collection of South Carolina slave narratives. Not only was it fascinating historically and locally, but it demonstrated the sheer weight of embodiment and evidence as the governing autobiographical facets of slave narratives. Douglass’s Narrative exceeds these bounds, offering layers of reflective philosophical content. That is, in many ways, why we read Douglass. In a literary sense, his work is deeply satisfying, and as we discussed in class, the high polish of his Narrative makes it more amenable to a literary audience today. But in witnessing the lack of polish in the as-told-to “Recollection” we were able to sense more strongly the absence of those very things–emotional content, reflectiveness, relationality–that we find most powerfully evident in Douglass. That absence marks violence, and makes the “Recollection” all the more devastating.
Looking Ahead and Blogging:
We have a packed week coming up. We are reading some classics from Thoreau and Du Bois, to Emerson and Henry Adams. But we’ll also read a reminiscence of childhood from Lucy Larcom, the prison memoir of an anarchist, and a piece of immigrant autobiography.
The critical prompt remains consistent as always: apply a generative concept from Smith and Watson to your reading of a specific text. As I’ve said before, please focus on a particular scene to illustrate your point, and quote liberally from both Reading Autobiogrpahy and the text you’re writing about.
For your creative prompt, I feel that something involving nature writing (in honor of Thoreau and Whitman) or reflections on childhood (in light of Larcom) would be most fitting. And in honor of Henry Adams, if you want to try your hand at the third-person approach to self writing please do. Anton considers it an interesting challenge.
To give you a chance to blog about Wednesday’s reading in earnest, I’ll move the blog deadline this week to Thursday at 10:00 PM–but feel free to blog for the earlier deadline as well if you find yourself caught up on the reading.