Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Introduced by Kwame Dawes

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the powerful memoir of an American slave, published with photographic portraits and a new introduction exclusive to the Folio edition.

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‘Classic and elegant in its simplicity and its gripping readability.’
  1. Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Born into slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass escaped bondage to become an abolitionist leader, orator and politician, and one of the most famous African-Americans of the 19th century. His autobiographical Narrative – an immediate bestseller in 1845 – was soon acknowledged as a pivotal text in the struggle against slavery. In this moving and beautifully written account, he lays bare a system that brutalised everyone it touched. Douglass tells of his childhood and youth under a succession of slaveholders, his secret efforts to gain an education, his dawning political consciousness and his determination to escape. This definitive Folio edition includes the complete text of the Narrative, along with Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ Bound in striking gold cloth, it bears a photographic portrait of Douglass on the cover – one of eight chosen for the edition. In an exclusive new introduction, poet and literary critic Kwame Dawes emphasises how ‘the struggle for the equality of people of African descent in the United States and around the world make this work relevant today.’

Bound in printed and blocked gold cloth

Set in Bell

200 pages

Frontispiece plus 6 colour photographs

Blocked slipcase

8˝ x 5¼˝

‘Douglass is a masterful narrator, and one of the things he communicates is that slavery is not a sanitized form of forced labour, but first and foremost, a system of violence, an assault on black bodies, black families, and black institutions.’
  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates

Although the Narrative is a powerfully direct eyewitness account of slavery, Douglass knew the value of projecting his image to make the greatest impact – both with his life story and in the use of photography. He sat for more than 160 camera portraits, making him the most photographed man of the 19th century. Those included here, from various stages of his early life as he rose to become a great statesman, were ‘reproduced in newspapers, magazines, postcards, and posters’. Some were taken while he was still a fugitive slave, placing him in considerable peril, and according to Kwame Dawes’s incisive new introduction, they show how he ‘mobilized his image as a weapon, as an affront to white supremacy.’ The Folio edition closes with Douglass’s ‘Fourth of July’ speech, as delivered to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in New York, which forms a fitting complement to the Narrative. In a scintillating piece of oratory, he denounces the hypocrisy of a nation and a faith that celebrated liberty while denying it to an entire race.

As one of America’s foremost campaigners against slavery, Frederick Douglass often returned to his own life story. But the directness and immediacy of the Narrative – the only one of his three autobiographies written while he remained a slave – has established it as a classic. Many of its episodes lodge in the reader’s mind: the savage beatings meted out upon enslaved women; Douglass’s forced separation from his mother while still an infant, and her early death (‘I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial’); his tricking of white boys into helping him learn to read; and his victory over a notorious master in a fist fight, firing his determination to be free. Douglass relates all this with simplicity and poise, his matter-of-fact style letting the horrors of servitude speak for themselves.

Frederick Douglass (c.1818–1895) was born to an enslaved mother in Maryland, separated from her in infancy and raised by his grandparents. As a child he was sent to work as a servant in a house in Baltimore, where he was taught to read. Later he endured vicious treatment at the hands of his master until he was able to escape and reach freedom in the North, around the age of 20. Settling in Massachusetts with his wife, a free Black woman, Douglass became one of the most famous anti-slavery activists in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. He advocated desegregation, education for African-Americans and other civil rights advances, including women’s suffrage. He continued to champion these causes during Reconstruction, pursuing a political career in Washington, DC alongside his work as a writer, speaker and newspaper publisher.

Kwame Dawes is a poet, novelist and critic who is professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he edits Prairie Schooner magazine. Originally from Ghana and raised in Jamaica, he was awarded a PhD from the University of New Brunswick and has lived and taught in North America for over 30 years. For his poetry he has won the Pushcart Prize, a Forward Poetry Prize and a Commonwealth Writers Prize, among other accolades; his most recent collection is City of Bones. His poetry collection, Duppy Conqueror, includes a sonnet narrated in the voice of Frederick Douglass.


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