Douglass and Revision

Another facet of autobiographical freedom we learn from Frederick Douglass–and another lesson we can take into our own writing–concerns revision. Douglass’s narrative doesn’t end with the 1845 publication of the Narrative of the Life. In two succeeding editions of his autobiography, Douglass expands the slave narrative into a more complete story of his life. And he also provides some key revisions.

We encounter the link between autobiography and revision as early as Franklin’s claim that one advantage of writing his life’s story would be to correct it the second time around, much like a printer correcting a draft. We see it, surely, in the ways Douglass learns to write: by revising (in other senses of the word) the assumptions of the slaveholders–writing between the lines, as he so memorably puts it. So, revision is another significant metonymy for the autobiographer.

Here are links to several key revisions in Douglass’s autobiography:

  • My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): revision of his discussion of his mother and her absence. We see that she is absent from him, removed by slavery–but has a very distinct place in his memory.
  • An expanded and revised narration of his first experiences (and difficulties) as an abolitionist speaker–where the first Narrative leaves off.
  • In his final edition, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (final version 1891), Douglass explains the method of his escape.

We can also consider lessons in revision that we can learn from Douglass and apply to our own writing–including the critical essay you are working on this week. I have in mind at least three we might borrow into our writing practice:

  1. Developing and expanding the critical reflection of his focus (be it a personal experience or an argument about slavery–usually the two entwined) by slowing down, taking his time, writing at greater length, providing close readings of scenes, memories, and language. In key moments, Douglass writes at length–doesn’t let us leave an idea before it is fully explored.
  2. Having explicit statements of his point, his argument, in key places: this is particularly helpful as a balance to the longer development he provides. The longer passages have lots of implications; Douglass is not afraid to be explicit in key moments to reinforces what we are seeing. This was the turning point because…
  3. Rhetorical figures, figurative language, diction: Douglass pays sharp attention to the implications of his language–and the language of slavery–and turns our attention toward grasping the role that language plays in understanding (and in some cases, failing to understand) slavery.
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