EN 209 Lecture Notes - Lecture 18: Autodidacticism

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Frederick Douglass
What makes this autobiography so odd?
- Douglass doesn’t just focus on his own life. He uses it as a tool to talk about the
institution of slavery.
Background Information:
- Douglass was an autodidact, which means he was self-educated. He found and used
primers (books meant for elementary school students to learn). In the 19th century,
these primers consisted of Greek orators’ essays. This is why Douglass’s writing
has so much rhetoric.
Who is the target audience?
- People stuck in the middle (undecided on the “question of slavery”)
Important Quotes and Explanations:
“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record
containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses
know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their
slaves this ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his
birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time,
spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of
unhappiness to me even during childhood” (1171).
Douglass seems to say that he’s not special at all and that his experience is really
just typical for a slave.
Biographies are usually written to describe special or extraordinary lives, but in
this piece, Douglass is depicting himself as the opposite.
Douglass calls much attention to the fact that all slaves live in this manner.
Why did the whites withhold the slaves’ ages? To deny them of their humanity.
“I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were
separated when I was but an infant- before I knew her as my mother. It is a common
custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their
mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its
mother is taken from it… For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to
hinfer to development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy
the natural affection of the mother for the child” (1171).
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Document Summary

Narrative o(cid:300) the li(cid:300)e o(cid:300) frederick dou(cid:301)lass, an american slave. Dou(cid:301)lass doesn"t just (cid:300)o(cid:262)us on his o(cid:442)n li(cid:300)e. he uses it as a tool to talk a(cid:261)out the institution o(cid:300) sla(cid:441)e(cid:389)(cid:448). Dou(cid:301)lass (cid:442)as an autodida(cid:262)t, (cid:442)hi(cid:262)h means he (cid:442)as sel(cid:300)-edu(cid:262)ated. He (cid:300)ound and used p(cid:389)ime(cid:389)s (cid:772)(cid:261)ooks meant (cid:300)o(cid:389) elementa(cid:389)(cid:448) s(cid:262)hool students to lea(cid:389)n(cid:773). In the 19th (cid:262)entu(cid:389)(cid:448), these p(cid:389)ime(cid:389)s (cid:262)onsisted o(cid:300) g(cid:389)eek o(cid:389)ato(cid:389)s" essa(cid:448)s. this is (cid:442)h(cid:448) dou(cid:301)lass"s (cid:442)(cid:389)itin(cid:301) has so mu(cid:262)h (cid:389)heto(cid:389)i(cid:262). People stu(cid:262)k in the middle (cid:772)unde(cid:262)ided on the (cid:786)(cid:388)uestion o(cid:300) sla(cid:441)e(cid:389)(cid:448)(cid:787)(cid:773) Impo(cid:389)tant quotes and e(cid:447)planations: (cid:786)i ha(cid:441)e no a(cid:262)(cid:262)u(cid:389)ate kno(cid:442)led(cid:301)e o(cid:300) m(cid:448) a(cid:301)e, ne(cid:441)e(cid:389) ha(cid:441)in(cid:301) seen an(cid:448) authenti(cid:262) (cid:389)e(cid:262)o(cid:389)d (cid:262)ontainin(cid:301) it. B(cid:448) (cid:300)a(cid:389) the la(cid:389)(cid:301)e(cid:389) pa(cid:389)t o(cid:300) the sla(cid:441)es kno(cid:442) as little o(cid:300) thei(cid:389) a(cid:301)es as ho(cid:389)ses kno(cid:442) o(cid:300) thei(cid:389)s, and it is the (cid:442)ish o(cid:300) most maste(cid:389)s (cid:442)ithin m(cid:448) kno(cid:442)led(cid:301)e to keep thei(cid:389) sla(cid:441)es this i(cid:301)no(cid:389)ant. I do not (cid:389)emem(cid:261)e(cid:389) to ha(cid:441)e e(cid:441)e(cid:389) met a sla(cid:441)e (cid:442)ho (cid:262)ould tell o(cid:300) his (cid:261)i(cid:389)thda(cid:448).

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