Frederick Douglass: Rhetoric of the Image

I suspect that many readers coming to Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (the full title) for the first time encounter some confusion regarding his beginning. The question arises: where does this text really begin? Once you get to the opening paragraph of chapter 1, one of several beginnings (as I see it, at least), the one where Douglass begins to narrate, we learn right away that Douglass has his own questions about where he begins. So it is a complicated issue from the start. To use a word from a critical thesis I will be presenting to you this week (William Andrews), the problem of beginnings is performed. Rhetorically, from the beginning we see the complications of ethos, pathos, and logos for the slave narrator. I am proposing that we can read Douglass’s narrative as an essay as well; and so we can focus in on these complications for the essay. A particular rhetorical  element of Douglass’s early form of creative nonfiction we can focus on is immersion (see keywords). The question I will ask initially: in what ways does Douglass immerse the reader in his narrative, his essay? The question we can work towards for the end of our reading: what’s the purpose of this immersion?

What is Douglass attempting (essaying) to do through this essay? The primary rhetorical focus seems obvious: an argument to persuade his audience–literally, the audience in the abolitionist meetings where he begins to speak–of the evils of slavery. But we see from the beginnings, and throughout the text, that the narrative is more complicated than that.

Some links for further thinking and reading into the visual elements of Douglass’s text. We spoke of enargia–the rhetorical term for vivid description. This text uses and explores the significance of the visual in ways that can help us think about the rhetoric of race in the context of the essay.

Digital scans of the original text of the Narrative published in 1845–including the title page and frontispiece portrait–are available here. You can begin to work your way into some of the significant beginnings, before you get to Douglass’s opening words, “I was born…” In particular, you can see the portrait of the author, left out of our edition but included in the original.

The Zealy daguerreotypes are images made in 1850 by J.T. Zealy for Harvard scientist Agassiz: for supposedly scientific, visual evidence of the inferiority of the slave.  [link here] It is worth thinking about and imagining these images when reading Douglass’s narrative and considering what significance his portrait might have in the narrative.

Perhaps the most famous and widely-circulated image of a slave was this one from the 1860s, showing the marks of slavery on the back. Douglass himself (we learn in his 1855 text) was introduced at abolitionist meetings as a graduate of the peculiar institution, with his diploma on his back.

Douglass also desires to become an autobiographical author, a self-made, representative American man, a man worthy of his own book, in the tradition that extends from Ben Franklin to his contemporary, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. So, one should also have in mind the kind of images that readers would associate and expect to find of Franklin or Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1855, Douglass published a revised and expanded version of his slave narrative titled My Bondage and My Freedom. The frontispiece from that book is quite distinctive. What is the difference ten years later? As we pursue the rhetoric of the essay with reading of Rankine’s lyric essay and Moore’s documentary essay, we will explore more directly the question of images in the essay. We can begin to think about that with Douglass.

Annie Dillard’s Rhetorical Vision

Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” the opening essay of Teaching a Stone to Talk, explores her encounter at an actual total eclipse that was evident in the northwestern U.S. in February of 1979. Here is video from it, as recounted on the news by Walter Cronkite. Dillard’s metaphorical references  to photography and film suggest, perhaps, that as an essayist she is something like a journalist, something like Cronkite, recounting her expedition and encounter with this natural phenomenon. That certainly fits with what seems to be the purpose of these essays: a writer’s exploration, somewhat scientific, somewhat personal, of the natural world. Dillard is known as an essayist and, first and foremost, as an environmental writer. In my American Environmental Writing course, we read her first book, a classic in the field, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One phrasing for her argument or purpose in that book: “I am no scientist; I explore the neighborhood.”

However, I will emphasize Dillard’s visual exploration of the natural world in these essays as rhetorical, not merely factual. There is something at work in these essays, a rhetorical project, that we can begin to approach by thinking of “rhetoric” using some basic terms. We commonly associate “rhetoric” with persuasion; that works, so long as we don’t limit our senses of persuasion to political discourse. More broadly, rhetoric attends to the power of discourse (written or spoken) to move an audience (listeners or readers) into seeing, feeling, understanding, believing what the writer or speaker wants us to see, believe, feel, understand. So, think of rhetoric in relation to the motives of a writer and a text–but with motives understood more specifically in terms of its roots (movement):

noun: motive; plural noun: motives
  1. 1.
    a reason for doing something, especially one that is hidden or not obvious.
    “a motive for his murder”
    synonyms: reason, motivation, motivating force, rationale, grounds, cause, basis,object, purpose, intention; More

  2. 2.
    (in art, literature, or music) a motif.
    “the entire work grows organically from the opening horn motive”
    synonyms: motif, theme, idea, concept, subject, topic, leitmotif

    “religious motives in art”
adjective: motive
  1. 1.
    producing physical or mechanical motion.
    “the charge of gas is the motive force for every piston stroke”
    synonyms: kinetic, driving, impelling, propelling, propulsive, motor

    “motive power”
  2. 2.
    causing or being the reason for something.
    “the motive principle of a writer’s work”

Emerson writes in his journal in 1845: “Every work needs a necessity/ a nature/ a material already existing, for motive to the poet & credence to the people” (9: 344). Cicero writes of three primary motives for the orator or rhetorician: docere, delectare, flectere; or, to teach, to delight, to move (literally, to bend). With Dillard, we might think of the ways her essays attempt all three–and perhaps embody that purpose in the title of the collection.

This “motive power” of rhetoric , motivating the writer as well as the belief (credence) of the reader, can be characterized by modes of persuasion for any argument. This is the way any writer or rhetor can address his/her argument to the audience. Traditionally, as characterized by Aristotle, the basic modes or motives of persuasion are three: ethos, pathos, logos. We can use these three categories for persuasion to examine the rhetorical elements of Dillard’s book as we work through it. As you read, look for passages in the text that might fit into one of these categories:

  • Ethos: an appeal to the credibility/authority of the writer
  • Pathos: an appeal to the emotions and experience of the audience
  • Logos: an appeal to logic and evidence provided in the text

As you read through the book, identify moments that you find particularly compelling. But also, mark places where you feel the argument, the rhetorical project of this book, is less compelling. Be prepared to share those in class as we explore the rhetorical work of this essay. And, as always, think about the ways you can write about, and write with, these rhetorical lessons in mind. As we explore other texts in coming weeks, we will continue to think about the rhetorical workings of the essays.

With Dillard, and particularly with her opening essay “Total Eclipse,” we can begin with pathos. The wild details of that clown painting with which she begins the essay, the clown with features made of vegetables, tells us that she is interested in other aspects of seeing in addition to the sort of factual description we would associate with documentary reporting. Something about vision, beyond vision, is being reported here. We find a good indication of that with her description of the platinum effect of the eclipse; her vision is represented as photographic, but it’s a photography that’s uncanny and disorienting, rather than the accuracy or precision we normally associate with photographic evidence.

The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. their every detail of step, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print….The hillside was a nineteenth-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. [16]

Dillard provides incredible visual details of this encounter. Her rhetoric of vision certainly offer a good lesson for us in thinking about how her essays work–and what we might do if we are interested in following her. Specificity matters; extended figures, particularly metaphors for seeing, matter in this writer’s exposition. We get immersion. We get enargia. We get ekphrasis. (These are all critical terms found on the keywords page we will discuss further). These rhetorical elements of Dillard’s writing represent the natural world as clearly as a photograph sees. But the rhetoric of vision, detailed as it is, at the same time also focuses on something paradoxical: what seeing isn’t seeing. The very metaphor of photography she uses thus invokes conventions of seeing clearly, accurately, but also suggests its opposite. The hillside is like a photograph; but it is also in the process of being turned into its negative. These are moments of the uncanny in the essay.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s first book, she identifies this paradox of vision in this way:

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

Pilgrim presents Dillard’s environmental vision; the photographic description, by way of this more complicated use of the photographic metaphor, complicates what natural description and observation means for a writer. To see the world, we need to open our eyes; but there are limits to what we can see, or say.

And so, as we think about the “vision” this opening essay establishes or frames for the whole of the collection, we will need to reckon with these two types of seeing. We can look for ways Dillard focuses our attention on what we are and aren’t seeing; we can listen for ways her language marks this paradox of seeing. And we can ask of the book overall, or each essay, what’s the argument? What does she want us to see, or see differently, about this “wide world” (20)? What encounter with the world will this book provide, and perhaps more strongly, more in the Emersonian vein, what encounter with our world does this book provoke or demand of us?

By the way, Emerson titled his first journals “Wide World.” Dillard elsewhere expresses her lineage in what we might call Emerson’s school of thinking and writing. Do you see or hear anything of Emerson in Dillard’s essaying?