Douglass: Rhetoric of Irony

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a y...

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Irony is a critical keyword for us to consider when thinking of Douglass. There are examples of this rhetorical figure and concept in every chapter, perhaps on every page. The first encounter with irony, one could argue, is in the title, the phrasing “American Slave.” Some have argued that the entire project is a matter of irony, a matter of seeking and finding freedom in the difference between what the text says and what it does. Douglass’s narrative essay, in other words, as dramatic irony. This is a critical insight developed by William Andrews, a leading literary scholar in the field of slave narratives (and  African American autobiography) and their influence in American literary history. His book,To Tell a Free Story (pages 101-105), is linked here.

Douglass and his important successors in the slave narrative implied that the writing of autobiography was itself to be understood as an act of self-liberation, part of the continuum of events narrated in the text. Instead of existing as the theme of the text, that which the slave narrative is about, freedom becomes the crucial property and quality of a text—not just what it refers to, but how it signifies. [William Andrews, To Tell A Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (University of Illinois Press, 1986): 103-104]

Andrews certainly has in mind, in his notion of the ‘quality of a text,’ the various craft, rhetorical strategies, and imaginative properties that we see from the first paragraph forward–that very rhetoric that Garrison assures readers Douglass will not employ.  In other words, Douglass is told to document slavery “as it is,” but wants to write, more like Emerson and other essayists, the analogy of slavery, a slavery that (to echo back to Montaigne) does not teach so much as relate.

Andrews challenges readers of Douglass’s Narrative to understand it as a more complicated text–not to treat Douglass as Garrison, the abolitionist, seems to do: ironically, making Douglass the slave narrator remain in slavery. [For more on that irony, consider Douglass’s revised version of his first experiences as a lecturer in the North, as described in his 1855 text My Bondage and My Freedom (p. 361)]. I am borrowing this challenge for the essay–I want us to consider the ways that the ‘facts’ of autobiography, for the essayist writing about herself or himself, can be read in a more complicated way that focuses on how and why the narratives are written, not just for what they say. Douglass is not just a witness, a transparent window onto the reality of slavery. He is also a participant–his participation (we learn early from the Aunt Hester scene) is one of the complications of slavery. And one of the keys to this participation, we learn, concerns language: Douglass writes his way out of slavery and its attempt to deny the slave an autobiography (memory, literacy, self-knowledge, identity). A key rhetorical device that Douglass uses in this re-writing of slavery is irony.

In simplest terms, irony is the literary or rhetorical device of deception: saying one thing while meaning another. There are complications to it, as the Wikipedia entry begins to outline. In my understanding of the concept, one of the important complications is that irony is not simply opposition or contradiction. In fact, irony shows where oppositions or contradictions, ironically, come together. With irony (in my book), consequences are always at some level unintended. And so the slave system builds its power in part on the denial of literacy (and by extension, humanity) to the slave; thus setting up a distinction between man and slave that is incredibly easy to undo. Just learn to write your “pass” or have someone forge one for you. The difference between “slave” and “man” is in the spelling. In fact, since the word ‘complication‘ derives from words which mean “to fold or weave together,” I might argue that what we learn from Douglass, and what Douglass learns from literacy, is that irony is a crucial property of any verbal text: there is always the potential of different meanings, understandings, interpretations, uses, folded into anything we write or say. This is what the slave knows when singing the songs. And this is what the slave narrator knows when writing his autobiography.

And this complication, we learn, cuts both ways. American freedom and slavery are entangled not just in the South. Douglass’s freedom in the North is ironically bound by racial prejudice. As we see at the end, Douglass draws a parallel between the darkness he faces as a fugitive in the North and the darkness that hangs over the slave in the South. Notice what Douglass does with this irony. He puts his reader in the position of not only the fugitive (pathos, sympathy, as we might expect), but of the slaveholder. We, too, in the end, are witnesses and participants in American slavery. Adding to the irony–or perhaps revealing it–we learn in the 1855 revision that Douglass is compelled to write his Narrative to prove that he was in fact a slave: he is not believed since he appears so articulate when lecturing before crowds in the North.



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 in our readings, we can explore more directly the question of imagery in the essay. This will also lead into our final exploration of the essay and new media, including video. We can begin to think about the rhetorical effect of the image with Douglass in mind.

A recent book, Picturing Frederick Douglass, claims that the 160 images of Douglass make him the most photographed man of the 19th century. Read more about it here.