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.

Lyric Essay, Part One: Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is subtitled “An American Lyric” and categorized by the publisher as “lyric essay/poetry.” What does lyric suggest or mean? In what ways does this poetic element of her essay play a role in the rhetorical project? What is Rankine’s rhetorical project: what is she doing in here?

In simplest terms, I presume the publisher means it as something of a synonym for poetic. Here is the OED entry for the adjective “lyric.”  Another term, then, might be prose poem. And lyric, in poetry, has come to mean something personal or autobiographical, in contrast with the epic; poetry of the I. Think Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

Calling prose lyrical or poetic may also just be a cop out: an attempt to describe prose that doesn’t behave like it should–and thus seems ‘poetic,’ transgressive of the rules of the genre. There may be something to this. And that something has a history in American nonfiction. It is one way that we can continue to explore the rhetoric of the essay, and particularly the rhetoric of race, as we read and discuss Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The lyrical quality is a poetic element of her writing; but I would also argue that it speaks to the rhetorical project as well.

When I look at Rankine’s text, I think back to the poet Walt Whitman–and not his poetry but to his prose. Specifically, the autobiographical prose he would write and collect under the title Specimen Days. As you can see from browsing it, the prose is composed of lots of paragraph or two long sections that not only feel fragmentary–but are presented as such. Consider how Whitman begins Specimen Days.

The fragmentation of the book is part of the story. It is not simply a case that an older Whitman has difficulty putting together all the ‘scraps’ and ‘memoranda’ from his life spent as a writer recording the poetry of America, it is that the very record is necessarily a pile of scraps. He makes the point particularly about the section of the text (its heart, really) that re-collects the notes and memoranda he recorded while in the Civil War hospitals. Where Whitman saw, and wrote about, wrote from, fragmentation at first hand.

Whitman named this “Convulsiveness“:

As I have look’d over the proof-sheets of the preceding pages, I have once or twice fear’d that my diary would prove, at best, but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences. Well, be it so. They are but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times. The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness.

So lyric may well mean poetic. But it also seems to me, with Whitman’s example in mind, that lyrical for Rankine’s type of essaying can mean a resistance to poetry–if by poetry we mean some sort of meaning that comes together into wholeness, a place where things are worked out by the end of the poem. Whitman’s poetry wants to do that; the prose doesn’t seem able. In 1876, Whitman published a volume of poetry/prose titled Two Rivulets: where the prose and poetry exist on the same page. He begins this volume in a manner similar to Specimen Days, by emphasizing his declining health, and his effort to put all the various scraps of his writing together. It is interesting, then, to think about Rankine’s focus on mental health and the sense of illness we see in her book.

Whitman expresses an understanding that Emerson, in his very lyrical essay, “Experience,” puts this way: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.” And of course, let’s not forget Frederick Douglass, who concludes his narrative by commanding the reader to undergo his fragmentary experience as a fugitive in order to understand him. Let you, reader, be as lonely as I was, he seems to say. Perhaps this is Rankine’s interest as well: don’t let me be lonely (without you being lonely). I think of the statement by the Irish poet Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; we make out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Rankine, and perhaps the lyric essay form, seeks to combine the quarrel with others and herself.

John D’Agata, a contemporary nonfiction writer and scholar of the essay, expresses several of these qualities in his definition:

The lyric essay, as some have called the form, asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or–worse yet–leaving the blanks blank?What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?… What’s a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything. [D’Agata, The Next American Essay, 436-7]

A final thought about the meaning of “lyrical.” It also strikes me as a way to get at the multimedia and documentary elements of this narrative.  For Rankine, the lyrical ‘I’ seems to exist, thoroughly if uneasily, in a world of eyes. We are all individuals, but watching the same commercials. Or so it seems. Some of the images, as we know, are racially focused, coded. In fact, the book began (she told the audience when she visited Washington College several years ago) in response to imagery from the Byrd lynching in Texas, and a comment President Bush made about it during a debate. In using a more recent, racially charged and coded image, namely from the Trayvon Martin shooting, I am updating the discussion.

As we will see in the last section of the course, Rankine also composes essays in video form, for example this one titled Zidane. Several others are listed under “Situations” on her website. We will be visiting these again in a couple weeks when we explore the video essay.

Could you imagine your own essay  expressed through video or photographic forms? Rankine will be on campus in September; the first-year read this coming summer will be her latest book, Citizen.

One of the rhetorical elements of this essay we need to consider: its appeal to logos, to evidence. Consider all the footnotes at the back (you might not have known they were there). What’s going on with all the evidence?