Book Review Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight


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Pat Young

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The book was a finalist for the Lukas Prize which honors American nonfiction writing, and is co-administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and sponsored by the family of the late Mark Lynton, a historian and senior executive at the firm Hunter Douglas in the Netherlands.
 

Pat Young

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Popmatters has a review:

https://www.popmatters.com/frederic...ht-2633150789.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2

From the review:

Supported by voluminous research and featuring clear prose and an unparalleled mastery of its subject's life and times, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a monumental work of history, one that will prove eye-opening, accessible, and satisfying for both academic and non-academic readers alike. Blight presents an American giant as a three-dimensional human being, who never wavered in his fight to inspire his country to fulfill its founding ideals. Blight's book will surely stand as the definitive Douglass biography for years to come. While it shows Douglass as a man of his time, it also suggests that his storied legacy still has much to teach us about the need for courage and an unwavering commitment to racial justice.
 
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Frederick Douglass eulogized Grant as “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”
https://www.washingtonpost.com/nati...8748871856a_story.html?utm_term=.1c74d409c430
:skip::whistling:
I was thinking about this quote, used in a number of Grant biographies, while reading this remarkable biography of Douglass. Blight seems to be quite critical of Grant in this book. I’m wondering whether Blight is biased or whether he has some insight that recent Grant biographers don’t.
 
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He has been working on it for years. I saw him at a conference a few years ago and he was talking to other historians about "Fred" as though he was his cousin. I asked someone about the seemingly strange familiarity Blight displayed and the person laughed and said that Blight was "living with Frederick Douglass." The other person I heard speak in a similar way was Bruce Catton. "Oh Bruce" he said about something he thought Catton was wrong about.
I believe that in many ways Blight has been researching this for decades. While reading the book I watched Blight’s Yale course again, and was struck by how often he quoted Douglass, as well as how much he integrated other African American perspectives. Blight has certainly played a key role in drawing attention to the importance of Douglass.
 
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and that is the conclusion of a very long review.
Thank you. I think that this book is extremely well written, and was glad to see that it has won many prizes, including the Pulitzer.

I particularly enjoyed the literary analysis of Douglass’ three different autobiographies, how each reflects the development and maturation of Douglass, but also reflects other priorities in shaping his narrative, as each was written when Abolition and the rights of African Americans were at different stages. He also gets into how the later versions of his original account reflect his need to understand his own origins, as well as the psychological scars that slavery and the loss of a family hold on during a long and interesting life. Even in old age Douglass had a need to attempt to come to terms with this.
 
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I have really enjoyed this book. I appreciate the details of the personal life of Douglass. Blight has a lot of sympathy with the plight of Anna, his long suffering wife, who is only mentioned once in his three autobiographies. She had much to put up with, including his fairly open relationships with other women. I wonder how many of the problems that his children had as adults can be traced to having been raised in his shadow, yet without direct parenting for months or years at a time. Douglass, who barely knew his mother and never knew which of several white men were his father, must have had no clue how to be a father.

The young Douglass must have been magnificent as a speaker. It is such shame that Abolitionists parted ways due to other disagreements and personal issues, since they were a small and courageous minority on the main issue. Particularly heartbreaking is the rift between the women’s suffrage movement and the Black suffrage movement, with both sides descending into prejudice.

Douglass in the postwar years is complicated, as the postwar years were. Old alliances were breaking, compromises made, loyalties constantly changing. Blight makes it clear that Douglass was constantly constrained by his need to earn a living for his family well into their adulthood. Like many people Douglass isn’t as easy to understand in the postwar era as he was before Abolition, since early clarity gave way to messy realities.
 

jackt62

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I just finished reading this biography. It is very well written and has a wealth of information about Douglass the man, the slave society and culture he grew up in, and the struggle for Black civil rights from and past the Reconstruction era. For anyone interested in the ACW, this is an absolutely vital book to understand the larger context of why the war was fought and its aftermath.
 



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