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, imaginative properties that we began to focus on in class with regard to This Boy’s Life: Douglass, like Tobias Wolff, is the literary author of his own story–despite what Garrison says in the preface (that Douglass is just relaying facts, with nothing imagined). In other words (as I put it), Douglass is told to document slavery “as it is,” but wants to write, more like Emerson or 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 Douglass and for Wolff, 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.


This Boy’s Life: show and tell

Tobias Wolff at an event at Kepler's in Menlo ...

One of the questions I will be asking as we consider the ‘how’ of Wolff’s memoir, and not just the what (how it reads, how it is crafted, not just what it is about): how and where does the book read like a novel? We started to take this up noticing the ways the book uses various elements of writing we might usually associate with a novel: scenes, episodes, dialogue, imagery. Also, our initial focus on Wolff’s metonymy, his crafting of symbolic moments by way of metonymic details (concrete and partial associations of memory) such as the road, provides another way to understand why this book doesn’t read like a mere listing or ‘resume’ of events from his life–the information dump of bad exposition: another thing, then another thing, then another thing…

Another craft element that is important in creative nonfiction, as in fiction: the author’s ability to represent ideas, characteristics, themes, problems by showing them to the reader rather than telling the reader explicitly. In most writing workshops, you will thus hear the mantra: show, don’t tell. In the case of This Boy’s Life, we see this evident, surely, in the way the narrative is built around scenes (each chapter, and sections within chapters). Moreover, what we see in these scenes are details that show us some things about Toby, his relationship with his mother, the world in which he lives, problems he faces, but don’t tell us exactly what is going on. We get implications.

One of the scenes, in my view, that is filled with such implications: the mother’s encounter with Gil and the promise of the new bicycle. While it is not ever clear what is going on there, what happens with the mother’s date, what Toby understands, why no bicycle, the lack of clarity conveys to us lots of information. The implications are the point: Toby’s relationship with his mother is based, it seems, on communication where things are always partially unsaid. What matters is not what is said so much as how communication takes place. This is the world of implication that Wolff the writer seeks to convey; and he does so by representing the implications without telling us exactly what to think. He leaves us in Toby’s position: of partial understanding; but also, in a strange position of a child who understands too much, the child who comforts the parent (as we see at the end of that chapter). We know too much while also knowing too little. The bicycle, for me, is thus a psychologically complicated image in this scene–and because it is a partial image from the life, from his childhood and a continued image of movement, call it another metonymic detail. I view it as representing an honest desire Toby has: what kid wouldn’t want a new bike. But also a more complicated desire: he knows he can “make a play” for it with this man interested in his mother. Where things get even more complicated: it seems to me that the mother also makes a play for it, that she offers herself in going out with Gil, a trade-off for the bike. And that in the end, Toby knows this and doesn’t know this.

Another question to consider as you read on, one I will be asking in class, certainly at the conclusion: why do you think Wolff writes this book? what purpose does it serve? Why show us these details from his childhood?

A recent article by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker [“But Enough About Me”] explores a similar question in its review of the history of memoirs, particularly the ‘flood’ of memoirs from writers since the 1980s: what is the interest in confession? and what, if anything, has changed with it since its beginnings–more than 1500 years ago with Augustine’s Confessions?

If you were to turn Wolff’s narrative into a film, what would you show? How would you translate it? We will begin to think about the ways that exposition, this important element of nonfiction narrative, needs to be structured into your writing. Like a film, nonfiction needs a dramatic structure for exposition (information, communication of details) to be meaningful, purposeful. And the way film does that is with a three-act structure of conflict resolution. For more details on this structure, visit this post from my composition class.