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  • Canonicity, Genre, and the Politics of Editing:How We Read Frederick Douglass
  • Rachel A. Blumenthal (bio)

When Frederick Douglass explains in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), that his white abolitionist advocates wanted only "facts" from Douglass so that they could "take care of the philosophy," he invites us to re-think the original Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) as in part a product of William Lloyd Garrison. Accordingly, his first book, authenticated and introduced by Garrison, would offer a baseline delivery of fact designed to bolster Garrison's philosophical appeal. Garrison delivered speeches by "taking me as his text," writes Douglass, reminding the reader that text—whether human or written—is a fragile and mutable object of analysis, and that his own life (on the lecture circuit and perhaps even in his autobiography) was partially co-opted by Garrison as one strand of evidence in a larger abolitionist project (Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1996, 212-13).

Douglass's life-writings and the complexities of their publication history suggest a difficulty of African American, ex-slave life-writing—how do readers, editors, and critics settle on a representation of a life history which risks being absorbed in political projects (such as white abolitionism) that read and edit black writing as representative of black experience? Douglass's 1845 autobiography features authenticating prefaces by white abolitionists Garrison and Wendell Phillips and stands even today as the "classic" and canonical slave narrative. Douglass published his 1855 edition, My Bondage and My Freedom, in the wake of his break with Garrison and the white abolitionists. It features an introduction by prominent African American abolitionist James M'Cune Smith, notably disrupting the editorial apparatus of the first book that required white men to authenticate the black ex-slave. Douglass issued two versions of his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, once in 1881 and again in 1892, marking a final split with his white abolitionist past, and including an introduction by attorney George L. Ruffin, the first African American judge in Massachusetts. Unlike Garrison's 1845 preface, Ruffin's introduction to Life and Times (a text that details not only Douglass's life as a slave and his abolitionist work, but his significant post-slavery career as a United States Marshall) focuses on the man rather than the movement, on Douglass's multifaceted personhood rather than his status as evidence for the white abolitionist cause. "Garrison has gone, Gerrit Smith has gone, Giddings and Sumner have gone,—nearly all the abolitionists have gone to their reward," writes Ruffin, acknowledging the "rewarding" accomplishments of white abolitionists even as he ushers them off the political and literary stage to make room for Douglass, who has "by his own energy and force of character commanded the respect of the Nation." As Ruffin would have it, Douglass writes to us not as an artifact of [End Page 178] slavery but as a complicated and "cultivated" person "whose virtues as a husband, father, and citizen are the highest honor a man can have" (Ruffin 17-18).

With such a rich archive of autobiographical materials available to us, how have we thus far chosen to read, anthologize, and canonize Douglass's life story, and how will we do so in the future? Following in the footsteps of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s "Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext" which documents African American literature as it has been introduced and prefaced throughout American literary history, this essay examines the ways in which Douglass's 1845 Narrative has been, and continues to be, introduced in relation to his latter autobiographies, particularly his 1855 My Bondage and My Freedom. Ultimately it refocuses attention from crucial but general questions of minority literatures and their position within the American canon to a particular study of how a single African American author exists within both the American and the African American canon.

Deborah McDowell has called for precisely this kind of project: "A major diachronic study of the production, reception, and circulation history of Douglass's 1845 Narrative is urgently needed." Gender is her focus, and she makes the important argument that Douglass's 1845 Narrative enjoys...