Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary and Analysis of Chapter VIII


Not long after Douglass moved to Baltimore, his old master's son, Richard, and his old master himself died. Only Andrew and Lucretia remained. Since Captain Anthony died unexpectedly, his property was not properly allocated and had to be assessed and divided between the two remaining heirs. Douglass was called back to the property, and was miserable and angry that he had to return.

It was offensive to every fiber of his being that men, women, and children were lumped together with cows, horses, and pigs. The division of the assets was a terrifying experience for Douglass; "a single word from the white man was enough – against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties – to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings." Douglass did not want to go to Anthony, for the man was a cruel, self-indulgent drunkard.

Douglass feared going to Andrew more than the other slaves, for his taste of freedom and good treatment had left him more aware of the brutality of men such as Andrew. Just the other day Andrew had grabbed Douglass's younger brother and threw him to the ground, stomping on his head with his boot until blood poured from his nose and ears.

Thankfully, Douglass was allotted to Lucretia and was able to return to Baltimore to the family of Master Hugh. Lucretia died not long afterwards, and was followed by Master Andrew. All of Captain Anthony's property was then placed in the hands of strangers.

Douglass ruminated that "if any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my old grandmother." This woman had served Master Anthony for many years, taking care of him when he was a child and watching his own progeny people the plantation. She had to watch her own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren divided up and sent away numerous times.

Even though she was no longer worth anything to Anthony, he did not set her free but set her up in an isolated old hut in the middle of the woods. She was completely alone and left to fend for herself, spending her days mourning over the loss of her family. Douglass muses on the gloominess, the screams of the owl and mourning of the dove, and the breaking down of her old body. She no doubt sat alone before a dying fire, thinking of her losses. No one would be there when she died.

Two years after the death of Lucretia, Thomas married a woman named Rowena Hamilton. One day Thomas and Hugh quarreled, and Thomas punished Hugh by taking Douglass to live with him at St. Michael's. Douglass was not as upset as may have been assumed; Master Hugh had taken up brandy and his wife had fallen into the cruel depravity of a slaveholder. Douglass was mostly sad to leave the Baltimore street boys behind. As the sloop departed for St. Michael's, Douglass paid careful attention to which route the steamboats took to Philadelphia. His conviction that he would run away had been revived.


Douglass relates the tale of yet another one of the demeaning moments of slavery – having one's worth assessed as part of a slaveholder's estate, in a process no different from brute animals. He thankfully avoids going to an even worse master and is allowed to remain in Baltimore. This is another example of how Douglass seems favored by Providence, for if he were sent away from Baltimore it is unlikely he would have been able to escape servitude. Douglass also writes that "if any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my old grandmother" (39). He somewhat melodramatically conjures up a mental picture of the old woman alone in her hut, going blind and slowly dying. Slaveholders' treatment of elderly slaves and the complete disavowal of all of such slaves' diligent care throughout their lives struck Douglass as completely loathsome.

Douglass quotes twelve lines from "the slave's poet, Whittier" (40) in order to gain the reader's sympathy for the plight of his grandmother. That poet was John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1872), a Quaker abolitionist born in Massachusetts. He was also an editor and journalist for such publications as Free Press and Atlantic Monthly, and published several volumes of verse. Douglass was quoting the first lines of "The Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother to Her Daughter Sold into Southern Bondage," published in The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, 4 vols. (Boston 1892).

Douglass would eventually escape from slavery, but his relationship with the South has received some critical attention of late, particularly in the work of William M. Ramsey. Ramsey details in an influential 2007 article how Douglass became a southern expatriate at the age of twenty and how in order to remake his self he had to forever leave behind his southern self. It would seem obvious that Douglass's actual escape to the North would be a "complete emergence from the dead chrysalis of his southern identity," but it was not so easy; long after he escaped, "his psychic response to the South was to be a central, continuing test of character" that had to be reassessed with every reformulation of personality.

Ramsey looked at Douglass's evolution of self, noting how nearly his entire childhood "prefigured and centered on heroic resistance." The best example of this remains his refusal to accede to the Aulds' desire to prevent him from reading and his duplicitous means to attain literacy. Ramsey wanted to avoid seeing Douglass's self as fixed; rather, he focused on the fluid developments in personality that characterize the famous author and abolitionist in his most famous text. He noted how wrath was a deep and abiding element of Douglass's personal makeup, and how it resulted in important rhetorical attacks against his former master, Thomas Auld. Ramsey also charted Douglass's evolution through "resourceful shifts of personality", modeling his discussion on the archetypes of Carol S. Pearson. He tracked Douglass through Innocent, Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr, and Magician. He also focused on three strands of Douglass's personality – Autonomy, Nurture, and Detachment – that were present at both specific times in his life and intermingled with each other later in order to demonstrate how Douglass's "triumphs of...character – even his manly self-reliance –were never unitary, fixed, or finally finished."

As for the South, Douglass's later letters reveal rage, attraction, and even detachment to the land of his birth. He visited a few times and remained connected to the land. Indeed, as Ramsey points out, Douglass knew two Souths – the geographical one that he loved and the ideological one that kept him enslaved and inferior. Douglass is firmly in the tradition of southern authors – Chopin, Faulkner, Wolfe, Glasgow, Hurston – who left their land of birth and remained profoundly affected yet ambivalent.