Critical Essays Douglass' Canonical Status and the Heroic Tale


Frederick Douglass was certainly not the only slave who wrote a narrative about his or her condition. Other slaves like Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, and Phillis Wheatley also wrote important autobiographies. Douglass' slave narrative, however, remains the most popular and the most widely studied slave autobiography in high schools and colleges. What are the reasons for Douglass' canonical status? Perhaps the answer lies first in the fact that Douglass' life embodies the American spirit and ideology — that is, in Douglas's story, we have the heroic tradition of the underdog rising to become a success. In fact, Americans are sometimes so entrenched in this dominant ideology that we forget it is not universally embraced around the world.

Second, because other slave narratives do not necessarily espouse and advocate notions which "fit" this American ideology, Douglass' Narrative of the Life of an American Slave succeeds in ways which others do not. Douglass is so appealing because although we may never fully understand his Otherness, his state of being unconditionally outside of the American mainstream of power and privilege, he creates a character who is understandable in our own dominant ideological terms. Most of us may never identify with his sufferings, but we certainly can regard his spirit, values, and heroism as ours. This ideology includes a belief in the value of knowledge, empowerment, and enterprise, as well as the ability to create one's destiny.

For Douglass, knowledge meant — and led to — empowerment. We encounter his credo in the first paragraph of the Narrative. The need for information about himself was important enough to be "a source of unhappiness to [him] even during childhood." This concept of "knowing one's self" is one of the basic tenets of Western civilization. Ever since the ancient Greeks, the West has placed great value on self-discovery and self-knowledge.

For Douglass, not only self-knowledge, but knowledge itself was paramount — even knowledge of seemingly small talents — such as the ability to produce counterfeit documents. By learning how to read and write, Douglass had an opportunity to exploit the Southern stereotypical image of slaves. He was determined to reach his goal of being literate. In fact, during his early years, he developed diverse strategies to learn to read and write, including conning neighborhood children in Baltimore to teach him and copying letters he found at the shipyard and at home. His enterprising nature and dogged determination have a special place in American mythology and in its ideology. This ideology, championed by New England Transcendentalism (for example, Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government"), is part and parcel of our nation's character. Our sympathy for Douglass is not mitigated even though he cons his childhood friends to teach him to read because his goals — freedom, education, and self-reliance — are morally noble and thus his means are justified.

Douglass considered slavery to be an economic institution that was antithetical to learning. It reduced slaves to unthinking beasts, for as Master Auld explained, "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. It would forever unfit him to be a slave." Education was the path toward freedom, and, through his self-education, Douglass discovered the existence of abolitionist forces which sustained his hope of escaping to the North. This logocentric paradigm, coupled with the inability of antebellum Southern whites to consider that blacks could exist within this paradigm — that is, to be literate — offered Douglass unique openings. His ability to write enabled him to forge a pass for himself and other slaves in an escape attempt.

We admire his enterprising spirit. We applaud his attempts to negotiate, while a slave, for a "work-for-hire" status. By exchanging bread with neighborhood children for writing lessons, Douglass is, in essence, an entrepreneur. Arriving in New Bedford, he found his first job — unloading ships and working as a day laborer. Indeed, because his only commodity was his body, he made his sales pitch simply by approaching potential customers. Salesman, orator, entrepreneur, capitalist, Douglass thrived in these free market conditions. Capitalism demands absolute freedom in market transactions, but a slave economy, which does not always allow for the strongest or best to prevail, is inefficient.

Alongside his belief in the value of education, Douglass also believed in the individual's ability to create his own destiny. This tenet has been, of course, a dominant philosophy in the West since at least the European Enlightenment and one which New England Transcendentalism wholeheartedly embraced. (New England Transcendentalism, which still dominates American culture to this day, emphasizes hard work and personal success; an example of Transcendentalism today is the "Just Do It" slogan.) Douglass wrote at a time when the question of personal destiny was not unrelated to that of national destiny or the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Personal, economic, and political gains would ultimately also benefit the nation. Consequently, our national ideology is also part of our personal belief. Until the end of his life, Douglass was a believer and a participant in the American Dream.