Wednesday, February 10, 2016

“Man,” “Covey,” and top 10 words in Frederick Douglass Narratives

By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II

We previously listed the most frequently used words in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative. Below, we have extended our discussion on Douglass’s word usage by documenting the top 10 words in all three of his autobiographies—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). In addition, we have noted the top 10 words from Douglass’s narratives combined.

We were intrigued by the rise of the word “Man” across Douglass’s narratives. The term appears 75 times in The Narrative, 335 times in My Bondage and My Freedom, and 560 times in The Life and Times. Granted, each subsequent narrative is much longer than the previous one. Still, the increased use of “man” in the narratives gives an indication of how Douglass was participating in conversations about masculinity and the shift from enslaved to free person.

In a previous entry, we noted the frequent mentions of Douglass’s overseer Edward Covey in The Narrative. The term “Covey” was among the top 10 words in that first book, but falls to the #19 most frequently mentioned word in My Bondage and My Freedom, and to #61 in The Life and Times. Douglass only mentions Covey in the first part of his narrative for approximately 50 pages. Ultimately, as Douglass revises his narrative and emphasizes the other hardships he endured during slavery, Mr. Covey becomes a less central figure in his life.

#FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies
African American Language and Culture Lab


John K said...

Howard, I'll look back on the earlier entries in this thread because you probably have already answered my question in one of them, but if not, did you use digital software (Google n-gram or another program, etc.) to count the prevalence of these words, or did you do so manually?

I am curious about how scholars approach counting in texts; a colleague at NU used specialized software, I know Franco Moretti at Stanford uses a range of tools, and I've tinkered with Google n-gram and had students try it out, but I know there are other methods to do this kind of work.

H. Rambsy said...

We used Voyant Tools (, which is useful and user-friendly. There are some other ones out there as well, I'm sure.

John K said...

Howard, thanks so much for the tip about Voyant Tools. Thank you also for this blog!