Book of the week
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
(Simon & Schuster, $37.50)
If the United States was given birth twice—the second time in the aftermath of the Civil War—then Frederick Douglass deserves a high rank among our founders, said John Stauffer in The Wall Street Journal. David Blight’s “brilliant” new biography recovers Douglass’ full significance to our nation’s historical experience, reminding us that the great writer, orator, abolitionist, and former slave was for most of the 19th century the epitome of the self-made man, the best-known American besides Abraham Lincoln, and the country’s beacon of conscience on matters of race. Despite his radicalism, he was also widely loved. “Perhaps Blight’s most original insight” is that Douglass was fueled by the belief that, like the prophets of the Bible, he understood God’s will. As Blight points out, any biography of Douglass is, at heart, “the biography of a voice.”
To a large degree, Douglass “wrote himself into existence,” said Eddie Glaude Jr. in The Boston Globe. Born into slavery in 1818, he was 8 when he was sent to Baltimore and persuaded his owner’s wife to teach him to read. At 15, he stood up to a cruel overseer who intended to break him, and at 20 he escaped north and named himself Douglass after a character from literature. He gave antislavery speeches from the start and was already a sensation by 1845, when he published his landmark first autobiography, taking full possession of a life that initially hadn’t been his. In the 1850s, we watch him break with pacifist allies to advocate full-out war against slavery, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. But Blight’s account “really comes into its own” as it fills in details about Douglass’ work and conduct during and after Reconstruction. He backed away from his earlier support of women’s suffrage, for example, and probably cheated on his wife, who had helped him gain his freedom.
Blight seems unduly anxious about those postwar years, said Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Yes, Douglass was imperfect by today’s standards in his defense of women’s rights, and he enjoyed certain spoils of celebrity. But he remained relentless in fighting racial oppression, and he had already made a lasting mark by insisting in the run-up to the war that the U.S. should start anew not by scrapping the Constitution but by using it as a template for a better republic. When we look at the man whole, as Blight has, “the claim that he was the greatest figure that America has ever produced seems hard to challenge.” ■