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27: WHEN THE LIONS WROTE HISTORY

May 24, 2014

#27:  WHEN THE LIONS WROTE HISTORY.  It’s not always remembered that

African-Americans, in addition to inventing and dominating several forms of American music, contributed a distinct genre to American literature:  the nineteenth century slave narrative.  (Its twentieth century successor, the Holocaust narrative, is of course mostly European.)  Of their nature, most of the “perhaps several hundred” such narratives (Arna Bontemps’ estimate) survive only as bibliographical rarities or historical documents rather than literature, though a number of them in their day escaped Abolitionist circles and became popular reading. 

      To read Douglass for the first time in full adulthood is to be struck by lightning.  Here is not only a great moral document and an historical testimony of the first importance but one of the great works of the nineteenth century plain style.  Douglass’s Narrative surpasses all the others of its type in dramatic movement and conciseness; he exceeds also in sheer penetration.  In every episode he goes to the core of the matter:  he has no thought for frills, and so each chapter strikes us with maximum impact.  And surely here, as is always said, the style is the man.  From this distance in time we could surely forgive in a slave any low cunning and deceit; Douglass’s style, even when writing of the time before his escape, shows a countenance of amazing directness and integrity.  His slavery seems to have been merely physical, and never to have formed his soul.  (He worried in his later works, for instance, of people’s reaction to his having accepted English Abolitionist money to have purchased his final right to freedom, so he could walk the streets of Rochester without fear of being kidnapped and returned to slavery.)  His friend Wendell Phillips once quoted from the fable that the lions felt they should be better represented “when the lions wrote history.”  Perhaps of all nineteenth century American writers, Douglass’s style is the most leonine.   His later books, My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times, overlap and repeat much from the Narrative, and the writing becomes more prolix, but there is also more detail and a lively panorama of nineteenth century America.  There are also unexpected encounters (we move from Daniel O’Connell and Gladstone to, of all people, Hans Christian Andersen) and lovely moments (a reverie over seeing a violin played by Paganini).  All three titles exist in various editions and are published as one volume in the Library of America series.

      “Many of the people now on the stage of life do not know that slavery ever lived in Connecticut,” wrote James Mars in 1868, who knew from experience that it did.  Arna Bontemps Jr.’s Five Black Lives (Wesleyan, 1971) is an anthology of memoirs of fugitive slaves—Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimm, G.W. Offley, James L. Smith—all of whom finally settled in Connecticut.  The news is not unrelievedly bad—it suggests that the treatment of slaves was marginally better in the northern state, and records any number of kindnesses amid the oppression and deprivation—but it would certainly be no cheer to anyone who wanted to believe in slavery as a purely Southern institution.  And the narratives are remarkably individual in tone and style: five distinct personalities.  Making Freedom: The Extraordinary Life of Venture Smith by Chandler B. Saint and George A. Krimsky (Wesleyan, 2009) reprints Smith’s short book with a fair-to-middling explanatory text and much good illustration.

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