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Introduction to Series Two


Introduction to Series Two

One of an exceedingly small number of nineteenth-century Americans to publish more than one autobiography in their lifetimes, Frederick Douglass occupies a unique place in the annals of American literature. Publishing three autobiographies between 1845 and 1892, Douglass left an unparalleled record of the events of his life and his shifting perceptions of them over time. Each of these autobiographical works reflects significant differences in age, memory, and objectives at the time of writing. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published first in Boston in 1845, My Bondage and My Freedom was published in New York in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1881 and extended in 1892. Douglass published all but one of his autobiographical writings in his lifetime. The one exception was the diary that he intermittently kept between 1886 and 1894. Consisting of seventy-one manuscript pages. the diary covers Douglass's trip to England, France, Italy. Greece, and Egypt. Far more than any other Douglass documents, his autobiographical writings are vivid recreations of his private internal life and of the complex worlds of slavery and freedom he inhabited.

Douglass's autobiographies have attracted the attention of numerous scholars. William L. Andrews, Houston Baker, Stephen Butterfield, G. Thomas Couser, Henry Louis Gates, Sidonie Smith, Marion Wilson Starling, Robert Stepto, Albert E. Stone, Eric Sundquist, and many others have examined Douglass 's autobiographies as literature.1William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana, Ill., 1986), 280-91; Houston A. Baker. "The Problem of Being: Some Reflections on Black Autobiography," Obsidian: Black Literature Review, 1 : 18-30 (1975); Stephen Butterfield, Black Autobiography in America (Amherst, Mass., 1974), 65- 89; G. Thomas Couser, American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Amherst, Mass,. 1979), 51-61; Henry Louis Gates, Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self (New York, 1987), 98-124; Sidonie Smith, Where I'm Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography (Westport, Conn., 1974), 3-27; Marion Wilson Starling, The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History (Boston, 1981), 32-39; Robert Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana, Ill,. 1979), 3-31; Albert E. Stone, "Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass's Narrative," College Language Association Journal, 17: 192-213 (December 1973); Eric J. Sundquist, ed,. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays (Cambridge, Mass,. 1990), 1-22. Historians David Blight, Philip Foner, Rayford Logan, William S. McFeely, and Benjamin


Quarles were instrumental in reprinting some of Douglass's autobiographies with introductions describing the publication history and critical reception of the works. These scholars contributed significantly to our understanding of Douglass 's autobiographical writings.2David W. Blight, ed., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston, 1993); Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, ed. Philip S. Foner (1855; New York, 1969); Rayford Logan, ed., The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete Hisotry (New York, 1962); William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely, eds., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (New York, 1997); Benjamin Quarles, ed., Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Cambridge, Mass., 1960).

At the suggestion of National Endowment for the Humanities site visit teams and reviewers, the Frederick Douglass Papers explored the voluminous writings of modern textual editors in developing an editorial policy for the autobiographical writings. A textual editor has determined the significant variations in different editions, the corruption in the text, printers' errors, and the author's alterations. Such analysis was crucial in order to establish authoritative editions of Douglass 's autobiographies consistent with modern editing practices. A description of the textual methodology employed in the editing of Douglass's Narraritive, the first volume of the Autobiographical Writings Series, immediately follows the text below.

Following the example of many recent scholarly editions, the Douglass Papers place concise annotations identifying individuals, places, events, and literary allusions found in the text of Douglass's autobiographies in an appendix following the text of each autobiography. To enhance the reader's comprehension and appreciation of Douglass's texts, the editors have included additional appendixes to each autobiography. Each of these appendixes contains contemporary documents, maps, or illustrations that illuminate some aspect of the elusive milieu surrounding the text of Douglass's autobiographies. The Editorial Method Statement explains the principles guiding the selection of such materials.

Historians have long recognized the central place of Douglass in his times. There have been more than a dozen biographies of Douglass, and contemporary historians mention him frequently in their writings.3For example, Kenneth Stampp in his study of slavery, The Peculiar lnstitution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York, 1956), refers to Douglass twenty times; James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton, N.J., 1964), fifty-seven; August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1963). twenty-one; and practically all general surveys of American history mention him several times. A further increase in the recognition by historians and literary scholars of Doug
For example, Kenneth Stampp in his study of slavery, The Peculiar lnstitution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York, 1956), refers to Douglass twenty times; James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton, N.J., 1964), fifty-seven; August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1963). twenty-one; and practically all general surveys of American history mention him several times.


lass's importance as the central political and intellectual figure of the nineteenth-century African-American community has occurred in the past two decades. This recognition has led to a flowering of historical scholarship regarding Douglass.4Among the most noteworthy recent monographs are: Nathan Irvin Huggins, Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston, 1980); Dickson J. Preston, Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years (Baltimore, 1980); Waldo E. Martin, Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill, 1984); Douglas T. Miller, Frederick Douglass and the Fight for Freedom (New York, 1988); David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass's Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Baton Rouge, 1989); and William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York, 1991). A computer-assisted search for articles in scholarly journals on the topic of Frederick Douglass turned up nearly one hundred titles published during the 1980s alone.

Literary scholars likewise regard Douglass's autobiographies as seminal works in African-American literature.5Harold Bloom. ed., Modern Critical Interpretations: Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (New York, 1988); Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 214-39; Deborah McDowell, "In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Tradition," in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, ed. William L. Andrews (Boston, 1991), 192-214; and Henry Louis Gates, "From Wheatley to Douglass: The Politics of Displacement," in Sundquist, Frederick Douglass, 47-65. The widespread acceptance of Dougl.ass's writings, especially his Narrative, into the canon of American literature since the 1960s coincided with a major scholarly reevaluation of the autobiography genre. Literary theorists such as Paul John Eakin, Paul Jay, James Olney, Sidonie Smith, and William Spengemann have questioned the traditional claims for autobiography as factual life history. They instead argue for a view of the autobiography that foregrounds its "novelistic" or "fictive" dimensions. Eakin describes how this new attitude toward autobiography differs from its predecessor: "Most readers naturally assume that all autobiographies are based on the verifiable facts of a life history, and it is this referential dimension, imperfectly understood, that has checked the development of a poetics of autobiography. Historians and social scientists attempt to isolate the factual context of autobiography from its narrative matrix, while literary critics, seeking to promote the appreciation of autobiography as an imaginative art, have been willing to treat such texts as though they were indistinguishable from novels."6Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, N.J., 1985), 3. Idem. Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton, N.J., 1992); Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (Bloomington, Ind., 1987); Paul Jay, Being in Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984); idem, "What 's the Use: Critical Theory and the Study of Autobiography," Biography: An lnterdisciplinary Quarterly, 10 : 39-54 (1987). Still useful are James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton, N.J., 1972), 3-50; and William C. Spengemann, The Forms of Autobiography: Episodes in the History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, 1980), xi-xvii. It did not take shed during the 1980s alone.


long for adherents of this latter view to proclaim that Douglass's autobiographies were primarily literary creations. After all, as its title suggests, his first autobiography was acknowledged by Douglass himself to be a "narrative" of a life.7Eakin, Touching the World, 206-07; William L. Andrews, "African-American Autobiography Criticism: Retrospect and Prospect," in American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Paul John Eakin (Madison, Wis., 1991), 195-215.

The publication of a critical edition of Douglass's autobiographical writings will not resolve the dispute regarding whether these works should be treated as biographical-historical or as fictional material. Historians will appreciate the editors' efforts to verify references to people and events named in these works, yet such verification will not settle literary scholars' questions regarding the "objective reality" of such references. At the same time, as the fictive dimensions of this genre become more highly regarded by literary scholars, the text itself is more, not less, valued. Our preparation of authoritative editions of Douglass's autobiographical writings will assist future research by those who regard those works as rhetorical constructs or inner narratives rather than historical accounts. By addressing the concerns of different disciplines, the editors hope that this critical edition will meet the demand of a wide scholarly community to have all of Douglass's autobiographical writing, at last, compiled and edited in one common series.

Douglass's autobiographies reveal the rich, variegated, and complex workings of one of nineteenth-century America's greatest minds. Though one might be tempted to equate that greatness with Douglass's tireless activities within the political arena, it was clearly his unique gift for self-definition and self-expression that set him apart from his contemporaries. More than any other written record left in his giant wake, Frederick Douglass's autobiographies have quietly led successive generations of Americans toward the true expression of his genius. The new Yale edition of Douglass's autobiographical writings is intended to provide new generations of readers with the definitive tool to appreciate Douglass's intellectual achievement.