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Frederick Douglass (September 2018): Primary Source Collections

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Primary Source Collections

Frederick Douglass produced three autobiographies; mountains of speeches, letters, and notes; and one novella called The Heroic Slave, in which Douglass presents a fictional account of the most successful slave revolt in American history.

Over the course of his life Douglass wrote three autobiographies. The first, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, appeared in 1845, seven years after his successful escape. The most famous of slave narratives, it fanned the abolitionist fires, selling over 30,000 copies before 1860. It went out of print until Harvard University brought it back in 1960. His second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, appeared in 1855. In 1881 he wrote The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Each autobiography expanded the information he shared about his life, escape, and commitment to freedom and equality for all. The best collection of these autobiographies is The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series 2, Autobiographical Writings, edited by John Blassingame, which includes editorial and historical annotations. Similar yet providing a different perspective is Douglass: Autobiographies, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which includes a detailed chronology, textual analysis, and extensive notes.

There are several other collections of Douglass’s writings offering different commentary and insights. John W. Blassingame, a pioneer in African American history, edited The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series 1: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. This four-volume set, published between 1979 and 1991, begins in 1841 and continues chronologically until 1880. Editors John R. McKivigan and Heather L. Kaufman’s In the Words of Frederick Douglass presents seven hundred entries from his papers on a wide range of topics, including, for example, the Underground Railroad, slavery, humor, luck, vices, and emancipation. This volume provides a unique perspective on African American communities in the cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. The introduction is excellent, and the editors include a useful bibliography and chronology.

William L. Andrews, professor of African American Literature at the University of North Carolina, edited The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader. Andrews selected what he considers the best writings of Douglass, each entry enhanced with an introduction and brief summary. In Frederick Douglass: A Life in Documents, editor L. Diane Barnes offers a detailed examination of his life in slavery and freedom. Julius E. Thompson, James L. Conyers, Jr., and Nancy J. Dawson edited The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia. In over one hundred entries the editors examine the depth and breadth of his writings, his speeches, and critical events throughout his life as a slave and freeman.