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Frederick Douglass’ revolutionary novel, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; An American Slave, sent a seismic shock through American society, altered many people’s perception of the “peculiar institution”, and utilized a stylistic combination of flawless rhetoric and his poignant first-hand account of childhood shattered by slavery. Douglass’ childhood was marred by an all-encompassing sense of nothingness, he did not know his parentage, mother, age, or birthday; he felt inferior to white children, and lusted after the simple knowledge about themselves the whites regarded so casually. Through revealing specific details of his childhood experiences Douglass creates an emotional connection with his intended audience, Christian, white, Northerners, and by use of pathos, strengthens that bond with every paragraph.
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Douglass begins his haunting tale with one of the few cemented truths of his childhood; his birthplace. He was born in Tuckahoe, Maryland, to Harriet Bailey, an attractive slave woman with a dark complexion and light, loving demeanor. However, these small truths were overshadowed by dark, looming clouds of uncertainty, which posed more questions than it ever answered. A young Douglass was left confused; Who was his biological father? Why was he so cruelly separated from him mother? What was his true age? Was the master actually his Father? These questions pestered Douglass for years, and as the excerpt explains, he had no venue through which to glean the information. “I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master…He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent.” Douglass spent his childhood swathed in mystery, he never had the chance to enjoy the warmth of a mother’s love, swathed, bundled, protected.
Douglass accounts his separation from his mother for a variety of reasons; including an effort to solicit pathos from his readers, illustrate the magnitude of inhumanity bestowed upon slaves, and to appeal to white mothers, who would deem the action both barbaric and unforgiveable. Douglass reflects upon his mother’s death with very little emotion, and states “She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill.” This quote exemplifies an understatement at its best; Douglass remarks upon his mother’s death the way one talks about the weather, matter-of-fact and resigned. The casual way he speaks of his mother’s absence in his life is directly conflicts with the sacred bond betweenmother and childset forth through countless books and artworks, such asLa Pieta.According to Douglass, separating a mother and child before twelve months was a common practice in Maryland, an action which most likely would have been deemed irreprehensible by sympathetic northerners.
Douglass also tackles another large and unsolved topic; the mysterious identity of his father. Although Douglass is mostly uncertain of the details of childhood, one concrete fact remained a constant; his father was white. Douglass writes “The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing…the means of knowing were withheld from me.” This quote is perhaps the most profound piece of the provided excerpt, not only did it add a new and puzzling aspect into the glimpse of Douglass’ childhood, but it also provided ammunition to enrage the pious, abolitionist, Northerners. Douglass’ rawappeal to emotionspeaks volumes, the scope of slavery knew no bounds, and bent the moral code of the 19thcentury to suit its depraved ways. Douglass’ non-existent father is introduced alongside the death of his mother, conjuring up feelings of sympathy and pity for Douglass among his intended audience.
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Douglass’ innocence was snatched away by the poisonous talons of slavery, leaving him vulnerable to the plights facing the adult world while still within the confines of childhood. By recollecting thetraumatic eventsof his early years he solicits a barrage of emotions from his intended audience, ensuring the success of his slave narrative. The death of his mother and hidden the identity of his father, Douglass paints a picture of heartache, loneliness, and uncertainty. In conclusion, Douglass’ detailed recollection of his past created pathos within his intended audience and undoubtedly opened the eyes of a plethora of ignorant Americans who simply believed slavery was a natural practice within America’s boundary lines.
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