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Published in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the hundred or more autobiographical slave narratives published before the start of the American Civil War (1861–65). Douglass's may be the most stirring and effective of these memoirs. Its style is fierce and inflammatory; as Douglass himself said, it is not light that is needed, but fire.
After its publication, the Narrative became a best seller, describing the horrors of enslavement to an audience that had been unaware of its specifics. By telling a personal story with details, Douglass's memoir provided abolitionists with a powerful weapon to bring down the institution of slavery. Even today, his Narrative still has the power to appall and move readers.
Though he was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass renamed himself after the hero of a poem by Sir Walter Scott, "The Lady of the Lake." He chose his new name after his escape from enslavement.
The New York Tribune reviewed Douglass's autobiography on its front page, stating, "Considered merely as narrative, we have never read one more simple, true, coherent and warm with genuine feeling." Abroad, a Scottish journal praised it, saying that it "bears all the appearance of truth, and must, we conceive, help considerably to disseminate correct ideas respecting slavery and its attendant evils."
The Narrative was published in 1845. In its first four months after publication, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 5,000 copies. By 1860, fifteen years after publication, it had sold 30,000 copies in the United States and abroad, making it, in all likelihood, the best-selling fugitive slave narrative.
In his Narrative, Douglass mentions Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, a hugely popular fictional condemnation of slavery, saying, "Nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal."
Stowe described Douglass's autobiography as "a book which can be recommended to anyone who has a curiosity to trace the workings of an intelligent and active mind through all the squalid misery, degradation and oppression, of slavery."
Fearing recapture as a fugitive slave and the effects of the book's publicity on his family, Douglass went to England aboard the ship Cambria. Proslavery supporters nearly threw him overboard when he tried to give abolitionist speeches, and he was forced to travel in steerage. He stayed in England from 1845 to 1847. While there, he gave many speeches, awakening the awareness of the British public to the horrors of American slavery.
Prominent white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote a preface to Douglass's Narrative, stating that it is "essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated."
Another abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, wrote in a letter that he had "the most entire confidence in [Douglass's] truth, candor, and sincerity." These notes, published in the front of the book, helped convince the public that the book is indeed the truthful story of an ex-slave.
In his preface to Douglass's Narrative, Garrison describes how he was moved by Douglass's description of his enslavement: "I rose, and declared that Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty, than the one we had just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive." Patrick Henry is noted for his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech.
A.C.C. Thompson, a neighbor of the man on whose plantation Douglass had been enslaved, wrote in "Letter from a Slaveholder" that Douglass's autobiography was filled with lies. He noted, "I positively declare the whole to be a bucket of falsehoods, from beginning to end." He went on to claim that he was opposed to slavery, but stated, "I was raised among slaves, and have also owned them, and am well aware that the slaves live better and fare better in many respects than the free blacks."
By 1845 Frederick Douglass was a speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His style as an orator was so articulate that people who heard him doubted he had ever been a slave. In order to convince his audience that the experiences he described were true—and to bring the evils of slavery to a wider audience—he wrote the autobiography that would become a best seller.
Douglass's first wife was Anna Murray Douglass, born a free black person in rural Maryland. After her death in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and, abolitionist 20 years younger. Their interracial marriage caused quite a bit of controversy. She was a teacher who founded the Frederick Douglass Historical and Memorial Association after his death. Both of their families disapproved of the marriage.