Book Review: “Douglass in His Own Time”

cover _ Douglass in His Own TimeIn a series of books published over the last fifteen years by the University of Iowa Press prominent literary men and women from the 19th century such as Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman have been remembered by those that knew them best; not modern historians but their contemporaries who knew them as they lived.

Joining rank in the collection is Douglass in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates,” ably and succinctly compiled by John Earnest, Chair of the English Department at the University of Delaware.

Douglass in His Own Time is a welcome and timely addition to the truly limited scholarship on Douglass, poised to swell as we approach the bicentennial of his birth in 2018.

In the introduction Earnest offers, “One might say that Douglass is not merely celebrated for his story; he is also contained by it, reduced to the confines of a heroic struggle against slavery and his attainment of a glorious freedom through which he continued his antislavery work. Less a living presence than an inspiring tale, Frederick Douglass remains relatively unknown even to many of those who celebrate his achievements. Douglass in His Own Time offers an introduction to Douglass the man by those who knew him – but even in these writings Douglass can seem elusive, shadowed by the fame that enters every room before him.”

The book includes an introduction, 13 photos and prints (not cited with the most exacting detail or captions), a chronology, 43 unique entries and an index. The recollections span the entirety of Douglass’s life from his early years as a slave at Wye House to his toil as a rising star and agent on the anti-slavery circuit to his controversial second marriage and travels abroad to his waning years as a commencement speaker.

Well-known individuals appear from William Wells Brown to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Elizabeth Cady Stanton alongside lesser-known reformists, journalists and educators such as “Grace Greenwood,Cordelia RayJames McCune Smith, and Kelly Miller. While expansive in its selection it is in no way inclusive of all sources nor does it pledge to be. Absent are reminiscences from any members of Douglass’s family as well as two women, Ida Wells and Mary Church Terrell (as well as her husband Robert H. Terrell), whose activism influenced the direction of 20th century American life.

The range of source material gathered by Earnest demonstrates the many public lives and various activist causes Douglass embraced and embodied over more than a half-century on both sides of the Atlantic and from Massachusetts to Rochester to Washington to Alabalama. Abolitionists, suffragists, editors and members of the church are all appropriately accounted for in this remembrance of Douglass

Any limitations aside, the book promises to be enjoyed by both general Douglassonian and specialists. For those building their Douglass-related library, your collection is not complete unless you have Douglass in His Own Time. 

– JM

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