Frederick The Great Essay

Among those in the free black community of Baltimore who embraced Fred and propelled him toward freedom was his wife-to-be, the housekeeper Anna Murray.

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The itinerant orator was just seven years out of chains — and already the equivalent of a modern-day rock star — when the first of his three memoirs, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” made him the most well-known Negro on the globe.[ ]Dependent upon abolitionist charity for his family’s daily bread, Douglass nonetheless chafed under a stifling Garrisonian orthodoxy that required adherents to embrace pacifism and abstain from politics.

He charted a course away from all that by starting his own newspaper and openly embracing as household saints blood-drenched figures like the slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner and the white revolutionary John Brown, both of whom he classed with the founders.

The novelist William Burroughs once complained about autobiographers who conceal their lives in print, quipping that the Paul Bowles memoir “Without Stopping” would have been better titled “Without Telling.” Blight makes a similar case against Douglass, who shrouded his domestic life in secrecy even as he wrote and rewrote his personal story in three widely read autobiographies that totaled more than 1,200 pages.

“Douglass invited us into his life over and over,” Blight writes, “and it is a rich literary and historical feast to read the music of Douglass’s words.

She wandered into the Douglasses’ lives in 1856, seeking permission to translate his second autobiography, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” into German.

She remained in the family orbit for nearly three decades, serving as confidante and interlocutor — and lover. J., where the participants of her salon lionized him, validating his rise from slavery into the thinking classes.She helped “to polish a raw genius into a gem and, for a time, managed his emotional health as well as his bank accounts.” Together with her sister, Eliza, Griffiths relieved the Douglasses of an enormous financial burden by purchasing the mortgage of the family home.White Rochester was scandalized when Griffiths moved into the Douglass home, an arrangement that spawned rumors of a romantic link between patron and orator. Racist conductors worsened the ordeal by exiling him to “mean, dirty and uncomfortable” Negro cars or ejected him from the train altogether. Garrison himself went starry-eyed, declaring that God had authored the young man’s soul “but a little lower than the angels.” Enraptured by the young orator in 1841, a white New England newspaper editor wrote: “As this Douglass stood there in manly attitude, with erect form, and glistening eye and deep-toned voice, telling us that he had been secretly devising means to effect his release, we could not help thinking of Spartacus, the Gladiator.” The activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw him a year later at Boston’s Faneuil Hall and spoke for many white women when she wrote: “He stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his physical proportions, majestic in his wrath, as with keen wit, satire and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery.”Douglass became a marathon traveler for the abolitionist cause at a time when moving about the country by train was punishing in itself.Wounded, the president summoned him to the White House and sought his help with the war effort.By this point, the man who had slipped out of Baltimore with borrowed freedom papers was poised to play a central role in America’s postwar transformation.We know nothing of Anna’s feelings on the matter — but the triangle of Frederick, Anna and the love-struck Ottilie comes through like the plot of an Edith Wharton novel.At different points, Assing referred to Anna as a “veritable beast” who kept her from her beloved Frederick, and as the “border state” that prevented her from advancing toward her heart’s true goal.Assing shielded him when he was on the run from conspiracy charges in connection with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, when he came within a hairbreadth of being captured and marched to the gallows with his revolutionary friend.That Assing was obsessed with the famous orator would have been readily apparent to Anna during the interloper’s frequent intrusion on the family home, where she lived for months at a time.


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