Critical Essays The Autobiography as Genre, as Authentic Text


In the eighteenth century, autobiography was one of the highest forms of literary art. Fiction was deemed unworthy, while narration of facts was aesthetically and philosophically pleasing. This prevailing convention overwhelmed fiction to such a degree that many novelists passed their works off as non-fiction, sometimes by creating prefaces written by supposedly real characters, who vouched for the authenticity of the story. Whether readers really believed in the truth of these stories is hard to say.

Although Douglass wrote in the nineteenth century, his Narrative belongs to this tradition of the autobiography as a superior genre. Autobiography is thus an ideal genre for arguing a political position.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is one of the best examples of the autobiography genre. Douglass was a reader of Franklin's works and emulated some of Franklin's rhetoric and style. Like Franklin, Douglass' narrative also depicts, in part, the author's rise from poverty to become a major figure in American society. Like Franklin, Douglass also stresses perseverance, sacrifice, hard work and success — values of an emerging American culture. Douglass admired the accomplishments of the framers of the Constitution and, in particular, Franklin's achievements. Indeed, during his lifetime, Douglass was described as a black Benjamin Franklin.

Douglass' Narrative, particularly in the first few chapters, presents evidence in an objective and almost scientific manner. This wealth of verisimilitude adds an authentic feel to the work. Douglass may have been aware that other autobiographers sometimes added emotions and personal opinions into narratives. In particular, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic writers tended to extol the virtues of emotion in their works. One of the most famous of these autobiographies is Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, a work marked by extensive use of emotional rhetoric. Douglass' work is consciously void of melodramatic discourse; he presents the atrocities of slavery without sensationalism or the Gothic horrors of nineteenth-century Romanticism.

Douglass entitles his autobiography The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself to stress his authorship of the work. There were other slave narratives in his time, some told by former slaves to white writers, and Douglass wanted to distinguish his work from other such narratives. The phrase "Written by Himself" persuasively makes the entire text seem more authentic. Douglass was aware that, on publishing his work, there would be racists who would charge that a self-educated fugitive slave could not possibly be capable of writing such an astute document. His statement of authorship is thus a pre-emptive rhetorical strategy to counter such racist critics.