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.

Momaday: shadows on the grass

“It was a simple story in the telling, but there were many implications, many shadows on the grass” (The Names, 50).

This line could well have been written by Nick Flynn, or at least, written about his memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb. With The Names, for all its differences–its location in different places, different culture, different approach to family and identity–we have yet another nonfiction text that could be described as lyrical autobiography. We could even return to one of our earliest discussions in this course: Momaday, like Wolff after him, and not unlike Franklin and Douglass before them, engages in the imaginative truth of autobiographical writing.

As I suggested in class, Momaday locates the cultivation of this creative idea of autobiographical identity–I think, I write, therefore I am–not just in his mind (as Descartes does), but in his family. And, as we see, his conception of family, in his tradition, extends far back in time and space; one’s identity is shaped not just genetically, but historically. And history includes: names, stories, places, parents, myths.

Is that really so strange?  What if we think of The Names as Momaday’s Genesis, his story of his beginnings, interwoven with everything else? Isn’t this familiar to us: where do I come from? If we take that question a bit more deliberately than we might usually do–and I would suggest a good nonfiction writer is nothing if not deliberate–then an honest answer to the question would fill a book. It is certainly familiar to American autobiography. Franklin begins with the story of his name, his ancestry enfolded in that; Douglass begins with the absence of his name. Momaday is also telling the story of his name. And what he does–albeit with different locations and names, as we should expect, since we come from different places–that is, to my mind, very similar to both Franklin and Douglass and Flynn and all the authors of this course, is approach the narrative of one’s beginnings as a narrative, in fact and in effect, of one’s becoming. If one of Flynn’s keywords for his “becoming” is “bewilderment,” the wandering that marks the experimental quality of his text, one of Momaday’s keywords is “evolving.”

We see a rich example of that in the case of his mother. He demonstrates in those pages around her images not just the evolving of her identity, but the idea of imaginative identity that he evolves from her. As we keep reading, and particularly as we give more thought to the creative and poetic (or again, lyrical) elements of his narrative in chapter three, we should keep the implications of evolution in mind.

And as we finish out this narrative at the end of next week, and give more thought to the environmental focus in the text–identity in place–this sense of creative evolution will also provide some grounding. However, as he forewarns us, the simple and recognizable image has many shadows on the grass.