Published by Frederick Douglass in 1845 at the age of 27, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is one of the most significant and influential works by an American author in history. Douglass's narrative was an autobiography that told of his life from his earliest days as a slave in Maryland to his escape to the North in 1838. It concludes when he is entering the abolitionist crusade as one of its most prominent and respected lecturers and reformers.
Douglass was encouraged by his abolitionist friends to publish his story, which had gained prominence from his multiple speeches on the subject. He was somewhat hesitant, remarking that "a person undertaking to write a book without learning will appear rather novel, but such as it was I gave it to the public." His intention in writing the Narrative was primarily to legitimize his speeches and his own voice. He explained in May 1846 that "my manner was such as to create a suspicion that I was not a runaway slave, but some educated free negro, whom the abolitionists had set forth to attract attention to what was called there a faltering cause...it became necessary to set myself right before the United States, and to reveal the whole facts about my case."
The Narrative was immensely successful. Between May and September of 1845, it sold more than 4500 copies and was translated into French, German, and Dutch by 1848. By 1850, nine American editions had been published. In the first eight years of its release, over 30,000 copies had been sold.
The Narrative is firmly entrenched in the literary era in which it was written. Antebellum audiences enjoyed the harrowing and dramatic slave and Indian captivity narratives that were published before the Civil War; slave narratives by Olaudah Equiano, Moses Roper, Charles Ball, and James A. Gronnisaw were enormously popular. The autobiography as a literary genre was very popular as well, especially as the reading of novels was frowned upon during this time. Readers delighted in studying the author's intellectual, physical, emotional, and moral progress and hoped to learn from their experiences.
As there were a handful of scandals surrounding the veracity of autobiographies, critics tried to develop ways in which to determine the credibility of those published. As there were two examples of slave narratives that were questioned in their claims to truth, Douglass was careful to demonstrate the legitimacy of his work. He included a daguerreotype of himself and his signature on the frontispiece of the book, included a preface by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter by Wendell Phillips, and even sent a copy of it to his former master Thomas Auld asking him to refute any untrue statements.
As John Blassingame writes in the Introduction to the 2001 Yale edition of the work, "the Narrative served several extraliterary purposes...it promoted [Douglass's] lectures...references to the Narrative became stock rhetorical devices in Douglass's speeches." Reviewers in the anti-slavery press reviewed the work quite favorably and were ardent in their celebrations of its publication and value to their cause. Meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society advanced the work. It was significant in that it clearly substantiated the intellectual possibilities of African Americans when they were removed from slavery. It was also used by abolitionists in a didactic fashion, especially in Europe, as it gave insight to the American system in all of its perversity.
The Narrative received myriad positive and negative reviews. Those in the former category lauded Douglass's revelation of the realities of slavery and his own remarkable character and intellect. They marveled at the development of his interior character, praising his path from slave to man. Others praised his plain style, especially because it was free from guile, which was seen to promote its truthfulness. Other enjoyed the pathos and drama of his story. Many Marylanders wrote in to validate Douglass's work, providing testimony that they knew him and/or his masters. As for the negative reviews, which were ubiquitous in the late 1840s, critics questioned the credibility of his work, and lambasted it for libel, falsehood, and ridiculousness. Some claimed the work was incendiary and existed to incite a slave rebellion. Some who knew the Anthonys and the Aulds attacked Douglass; his most ardent foe was A.C.C. Thompson, a friend of Thomas Auld's who wrote an article excoriating the Narrative.
Despite the criticism garnered during Douglass's lifetime, the work was remarkably popular and inspiring. Blassingame writes, "Blazoned, scrutinized, excoriated, Frederick Douglass by the early 1850s was fixed in the American public's mind as a real person who had earlier passed through the mill of slavery...he had almost single-handedly restored vigor to the slave narratives as key weapons in the antislavery crusade." His autobiography has earned its place in the pantheon of American autobiography, literature, and political writing. It remains one of the best sources to gain a full and nuanced understanding of one of the most loathsome realities of American history, and reveals a man remarkable for his intellect, sagacity, perseverance, and enduring spirit.