Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Classic #5

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. This book was his third memoir, written in 1881 and revised in 1892. I have no reservation recommending this book to readers with an interest in antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery, the Abolitionist movement, post- Civil War reform in the US, or memoirs of great Americans.

In the first third of the book, Douglass paints a picture of the absence of law, of civil society, in slave states: “That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touched it nowhere.” Slavery also had a bad effect on slave owners and their families:

The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow. Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.

Douglass takes jabs at the work ethic that was undermined by slavery. Farms are shabby, workmanship shoddy. For all the talk of refinement and genteel manners, slave-holders and the hired help are careless, stupid, ill-informed, angry, short-tempered, lacking in foresight, paranoid, and never seeing anybody outside a narrow world of uncouth stressed relatives and impatient vulgar cronies. Not to mention the whole system has to be propped up with an army of thugs such as overseers and hired kidnappers. Ashley Wilkes - my red Indian ass.

The great thing about Douglass is that he names names. The book is filled with telling anecdotes like this one:

No stronger contrast between two men could well be presented than the one exhibited on this day between President Lincoln and Vice-President Johnson. Mr. Lincoln was like one who was treading the hard and thorny path of duty and self-denial; Mr. Johnson was like one just from a drunken debauch. The face of the one was full of manly humility, although at the topmost height of power and pride; that of the other was full of pomp and swaggering vanity. The fact was, though it was yet early in the day, Mr. Johnson was drunk.

After the Civil War, the Republican party turned its back on ideals and black people and became the party of money that it is in our present day. The Republicans' walking away from Reconstruction and leaving blacks defenseless against the former slave-owning, slave-beating, slave-driving, slave-catching class filled Douglass with sadness:

Clinging in hope to the Republican party, thinking it would cease its backsliding and resume its old character as the party of progress, justice and freedom, I regretted its defeat and shared in some measure the painful apprehension and distress felt by my people at the South from the return to power of the old Democratic and slavery party. To many of them it seemed that they were left naked to their enemies; in fact, lost; that Mr. Cleveland's election meant the revival of the slave power, and that they would now be again reduced to slavery and the lash. The misery brought to the South by this widespread alarm can hardly be described or measured. The wail of despair from the late bondsmen was for a time deep, bitter and heartrending. Illiterate and unable to learn to read or to learn of any limit to the power of the party now in the ascendant, their fears were unmitigated and intolerable, and their outcry of alarm was like the cry of dismay uttered by an army when its champion has fallen and no one appears to take his place. It was well for the poor people in this condition that Mr. Cleveland himself kindly sent word South to allay their fears and to remove their agony. In this trepidation of the unlettered negro something is apparent aside from his ignorance. If he knew nothing of letters, he knew something of events and of the history of parties to them. He knew that the Republican party was the party hated by the old master class, and that the Democratic party was the party beloved of the old master class.

Anyway, this review grows too long. In his day, Douglass critics argued if he was a better orator or a better writer. This book shows his powerful writing style. I hope these long quotations give a sense of that.

PS: I moderate comments to this blog. If I get any  trash, nonsense, or bilge I will, without remorse, trash them. 

I promise.

1 comment:

  1. I just posted my review of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to the Back to the Classics Challenge, and saw that you had read about him also. I wish I had known about this book before picking up the one I read - Narrative only covers the time til he's 27-28, and I would have liked to have read about the rest of his life. I'll just have to add this one to my TBR list. But what was in Narrative showed him to be quite articulate.