Monday, October 12, 2015

Notes on the critical work on Frederick Douglass

By Jeremiah Carter

In the close of the twentieth century, a number of scholars continued to write on Frederick Douglass's Narrative. Three of the best-known essays focused on Douglass’s Narrative are Deborah McDowell’s “In the First Place: Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Tradition” (1991), and two introductions to the Narrative by Houston Baker (1982) and Henry Louis Gates (1997), respectively.

I look to these three scholars and their critical work as foundational for the scholarship of the last decade that has covered the Narrative. Of the scholarly articles on Douglass published since 2005, McDowell, Baker, and Gates recur most often in the scholars' texts and bibliographies.

While McDowell’s text precedes that of Baker and Gates, her critique can be extended to their introductions as well. “In the First Place,” McDowell critiques Douglass as a “self-made” man in the Narrative as well as the lack of this critique in the scholarship. She writes, “I am interested in why the making of Douglass, particularly by this current generation of scholars has had such widespread explanatory power and appeal, and why it is attached so solidly to the logic of beginning and origin.”

She specifically challenges the accepted notion of the Narrative as the “first” African-American autobiography and slave narrative. McDowell identifies the masculine and patriarchal appeal of the texts and discusses the general and distinct points in the academy that overlook and reinforce problematic rhetoric that excludes acknowledgment of the texts prior to Douglass’s and the intellectual contributions of women.

Baker’s introduction is divided into two sections. The first section situates the Narrative within the larger context of African-American literary history. The second, summarizes key episodes in the Narrative and discusses the immediate critical attention it gained. Beyond covering Douglass’s contemporary reviews of the Narrative, Baker’s introduction reads as one that would best serve someone who is has little prior knowledge of the text.

Gates’s introduction, published in Dell’s 150th Anniversary Edition of the Narrative, displays a distinct point of view and motivation. He writes, “I was thinking about this essay for another reason: I thought of it as I was preparing a short response to Charles Murray’s and Richard J Hernsteins’s spurious claims that blacks score lower on IQ tests because of unalterable, natural, genetic differences. It is natural that one would return to Douglass…” The essay opens with an examination of the intellectual qualities of Douglass, as featured in the Narrative “just seven years out of slavery.” Lastly, Gates argues for attention to Douglass’s human complexity (which often evades “black leaders [hidden] behind the veil of race”) that is represented in recent biographical discoveries.

#FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies

Jeremiah Carter is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front

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