- Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
David W. Blight dons his public intellectual hat in this long-awaited new biography of Frederick Douglass, one of the nineteenth century's most important human rights activists. The first major biography of Douglass [End Page 642] in more than a generation, Blight's book was ten years in the making, and well worth the wait. The last major Douglass biography, William S. McFeely's Frederick Douglass (1991), overreached in interpretation and introduced a host of minor and unnecessary inaccuracies into the canon of Douglass scholarship. Blight's volume adds to other recent works in providing a major corrective to the historiography dominated by McFeely and others who relied almost exclusively on Douglass's own writings, especially his three autobiographies. This mellifluous biography joins Women in the World of Frederick Douglass (2017), by Leigh Fought, and The Lives of Frederick Douglass (2016), a close read of Douglass's own words by Robert Levine, to demonstrate that there is still much to learn about the Lion of Anacostia. By incorporating the copious correspondence surrounding Douglass's circle of reformers, friends, family, and even critics, Blight and other recent Douglass scholars are opening a new window into the life and experiences of this oft-studied American.
Blight's hefty volume offers a considerate portrayal of Douglass's "life and times," contextualizing his familiar life story in the larger history of the century in which he lived. In so doing, it brings Douglass's story to life in a way that will appeal to both scholars and general readers. With a sometimes-flourishing writing style, Blight moves readers into Douglass's world and lets them walk through his years as a slave in Maryland, as a free man, and as a famous orator and reformer. When necessary, Blight deviates from the biographical narrative to explain the larger scope of nineteenth-century history, which will be useful for general readers. For example, he details just how Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation led to the formation of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment and Douglass's role as a recruiter of black troops, and later offers a rundown of the power struggle between Andrew Johnson and Congress in the early days of Reconstruction.
Blight envisions Douglass as a prophet of freedom, and throughout the book he places more emphasis on the great man's connection to religion and Christianity than previous scholars have allowed. Yet this seems to work more as an organizing device than as an actual argument guiding the biography. Douglass maintained an association with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and at one point acted as a lay preacher, but Blight uses Douglass's command of the text and parables of the King James Bible to provide an organizing thread. Beyond pointing out Douglass's frequent use of Bible quotes and allusions in his speeches and writings, however, Blight offers little convincing analysis to contradict received scholarship on Douglass's tangential connection to organized religion throughout most of his adult life. Indeed, for Douglass, scripture was one of many literary [End Page 643] canons in his repertoire. Douglass quoted an amazing range of literature, including works by Lord Byron, Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas, and others familiar to his nineteenth-century audiences and readers, yet Blight gives those influences almost no attention.
Tracing the full narrative of Douglass's life and immersion in the annals of nineteenth-century American history, the first two-thirds of Blight's book forms a comfortable retelling of the great man's life familiar to scholars. But in the last third of the book, which corresponds to Douglass's post–Civil War experiences, Blight's unique access to a treasure trove of privately held materials affords him a means to offer a new telling of the last decades of Douglass's life. His access to Walter O. Evans's private collection of family-created scrapbooks and correspondence allows Blight to comment newly on the postwar relationships between Douglass and his growing extended family of children and their...