Douglass—a slave who escaped to freedom and became a celebrated orator, abolitionist, suffragist, and civil rights advocate—is perhaps the single greatest example of a 19th-century American who typified the trials and consequences of his time. And yet, while modern scholarship addresses Douglass and communicates his story alongside larger explanations of contemporaries living in the same era as he, his full life’s tale has largely been ignored.
Soon, thanks to the efforts of Dr. David W. Blight, that will change.
Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, is in the process of completing a full biography of Douglass, which will reportedly be released in late 2017. To date, the publication has not received a confirmed title.
In a lecture called “DOUGLASS! DOUGLASS! Writing the Life of Frederick Douglass: Why, and Why Now?” delivered at Harvard Law School on Nov. 9, Blight detailed his research and writing processes, as well as his reasons for writing a Douglass biography now. (It is worth noting that Blight’s lecture was delivered one day following the recent presidential election, and therefore features some intriguing analysis with regard to Frederick Douglass’ reactions to presidential elections in his lifetime, particularly the reelection of Lincoln in 1864.)
While Blight had not anticipated working on a full-length study of Douglass—about whom he has already written scores of articles, lectures, and an intellectual biography—he reasoned that the opportunity was too good to ignore. Now, after more than five years, as of November, Blight was working on the 31st (and final) chapter of the biography.
Especially significant, said Blight, is the plethora of material in the Evans’ collection regarding the last third of Douglass’ life, as well as his views on several personal issues, including religion and apparently complicated relationships with women. Up to this point, even with Douglass’ three autobiographies, several pieces of his life were seemingly missing.
“It opens up the last third of Douglass’ life as never before…,” said Blight. “Douglass is so famous because of overcoming slavery. Being a slave, and becoming free, is in some ways more dramatic than being free,” at least according to scholarship on Douglass to this point.
In the last decades of his life, Blight continued, “we get a Douglass who is often deemed ‘out of touch.’ He’s getting old. He’s always getting in…fights with other black leaders….But that last third has for me become his most fascinating of all. It’s the aging man, the old man, the man of fame and celebrity.” Blight added that the material pertaining to this portion of Douglass’ life adds “thousands of pieces of texture” to historians’ understanding of such an influential and complex historical figure.
Additionally, Blight emphasized the importance of exploring Douglass’ use of rhetoric. Blight spent substantial time throughout his research searching for the origins of where Douglass learned to find and utilize “the music of language” so eloquently.
Above all else, a full monograph of Douglass unavoidably has to focus on his involvement in the central event of the mid-19th century, and the most significant life event for all who lived through it—the Civil War.
“What kind of a revolution was the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction in American life, and how do you answer it through the life of Douglass?” asked Blight, rhetorically.
“That may be the biggest thing of all; it’s kind of what interests people about Douglass," Blight continued. "There he sits: he’s born in the 18-teens, before there are steamboats, and he dies after Edison has made recording devices….But in the middle of his life is this big thing—The Civil War—which meant everything to his own identity, and his own meaning. It’s at the heart of any attempt to explain him.”
Just last year, John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier compiled and released “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), which features 160 images of Douglass captured between 1841 and 1895.
Lately, dual biographies of Douglass and Lincoln have been popular, best exemplified by James Oakes’ “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), and “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln” (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008).
The most valuable contributions to the bibliography of Douglass materials are the words of the man himself. Most prominent among these are his three separate autobiographies, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (originally published in 1845), “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855), and “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881). Additionally, several of his public addresses and other personal writings are available via online repositories, such as TeachingAmericanHistory.org.