Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight
Simon & Schuster, 2018
It's been nearly 30 years since William McFeely's epic biography of Frederick Douglass, and as historian David Blight notes with depressing accuracy in his magisterial new book Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom (beautifully produced by Simon & Schuster), “The problem of the twenty-first century is still some agonizingly enduring combination of the legacies bleeding from slavery and color lines.” Relevance is a wobbly leg on which to rest the weight of a biography, particularly a 900-page doorstop, and Blight, a Yale University professor, winner of the Bancroft Prize, and editor of annotated editions of Douglass's first two autobiographies, wisely here crafts a monument to the man his his own time rather than in the lens of our own.
The outlines of the Frederick Douglass story are well-known in large part through the superb readability of those autobiographies: born a slave in Maryland in 1818, he was taught how to read by the kindly wife of a slaveholder, escaped at the age of 20 to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and quickly became a leading advocate in the Northeast's growing abolitionist movement. He wrote, spoke, and traveled prodigiously, was appointed marshal of the District of Columbia by President Rutherford Hayes (“the first time,” Blight points out, “in American history that an African American was nominated for a position that required Senate approval”), dealt with his growing and sometimes contentious family, and lived to see what Blight calls “the great experiment in racial democracy” of Reconstruction darken into the age of Jim Crow lynchings, and constantly shifted and adapted under the growing weight of his own celebrity, both in the international world of letters and activism and also in the more close-knit and compromised world of Washington politics.
Naturally, no historian is likely to summon the sonorous eloquence Douglass himself could bring to the page, but biographers can supply perspective, and Blight's book is particularly brilliant in fleshing out that later, public period of his subject's life. In addition to wearing his scholarly erudition lightly (though enormous, this is an effortlessly readable book), Blight is also winningly curious, constantly probing the settled scenes of Douglass's fame in order to locate the man inside the growing mythos. It's an academic's reflex, posing questions in order to further discussion, and in Blight's handling, it works with smooth believability:
As he found his footing in official Washington, he began to embody a series of contradictions that both enriched and circumscribed his life. He was now the outsider who would be the insider, an anointed symbol and heroic icon of the past who still wanted to be the activist in the present. Would he grow old and lose his voice in appointed office or still be a voice of resistance and protest? Would his leadership slip into merely emblematic or fiercely resist all forms of white supremacy? Entering his sixties, was he a figure of the pats or still of the future?
“Douglass had long known that even the forlorn hope that mocked historical experience was sometimes better than despair,” Blight writes at one point, and that tone of pragmatic eloquence sounds throughout Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. This is a Douglass who can write a turgid, tossed-off essay when he's distracted; a Douglass who can snap even at the children and grandchildren he loves; a Douglass who didn't always trouble to blunt his bitterness with perfectly-worded sarcasm. It's a thoroughly human portrait, which ultimately serves to clarify the greatness more effectively than hagiography ever could. This is a magnificent biography of an American who remains perennially pivotal to the national story; it deserves to be the standard Frederick Douglass life for a new generation.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.