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.

This Boy’s Life: As If We’d Been Saved

The final sentence of This Boy’s Life captures in one line a creative tension of this narrative and the way Wolff’s autobiography works. The tension is particularly strong in the concluding chapters of the novel. The sentence reminds us, in case we had momentarily forgotten in the joy of Toby’s singing, what we know and he doesn’t yet. Things aren’t going to work out; he is, as the narrator puts it earlier, headed for trouble, on his way to a war.

It was a good night to sing and we sang for all we were worth, as if we’d been saved.

So Toby isn’t saved. That’s the final word. But the complication is that he also makes it out, is in some way released; the final section, after all, is titled ‘Amen.’ In other words, Toby is and isn’t free. Wolff leaves this ambivalence as the final note of the autobiography. I wonder what you think of that. Why end here? Why leave us, leave Toby, this way?

As I mentioned in class, this isn’t the Hollywood ending. As I recall, the movie version of the book points forward to Dwight’s arrest, possibly mentions in voice-over Toby’s problems at Hill (I can’t recall exactly), but focuses attention on the mother and Toby getting into the car once again for the summer. The image seems to be from around page 263, when Toby gets his scholarship and the mother a job in Seattle: “We were ourselves again–restless, scheming, poised for flight.” This is, of course, where we begin the narrative (poised for flight); but it is not where Wolff leaves us. Instead, we get Toby in the car, yes, singing and scheming, but heading back into a trap long ago set.

Does this mean that Wolff’s vision of his childhood is ultimately pessimistic? Why leave it here, or even write it, if that is the conclusion? What’s the point?

My view is that this ambivalence, this inability to separate the future from the past, the good from the bad, freedom from some sort of enslavement, or even true self from false or other self, is precisely what this autobiography is about. And at some level, what every autobiography gets into: the ambivalence of memory and identity. In the case of Franklin, this potential for self-invention and self-making is powerful and even, potentially, virtuous–his ‘art’ or plan for virtue. But it also means that the self is always on the move, always in process. Recall how Franklin puts it with his analogy, his metonymy: I failed to achieve the virtue completely, but was mended in the process of writing it down, just as the hand learns to write in the process of copying letters.

In Toby’s case, we see this ambivalence poignantly in the reflection of the mirror when he is trying on clothes with Mr. Howard. Note how wonderfully complicated and symbolic this moment, otherwise mundane (trying on clothes), reads. It picks up nicely the way Wolff earlier frames the moment that leads to this: the applications, and fabrications, that get Toby into Hill–where he claims to be telling the truth as he imagined it, and to see, finally, his own face. In the store, this is image given back:

The elegant stranger in the glass regarded me with a doubtful, almost haunted expression Now that he had been called into existence, he seemed to be looking for some sign of what lay in store for him.

But the man, as Wolff earlier puts it, is no help to the boy. And there is the complication of this story’s freedom. Because this stranger, this imagined truth, doesn’t know the truth yet, Toby has to find out the hard way. He is free and stuck, caught, at the very same time. I think Wolff knows, as a writer of memory and identity, that this is always the case with reflections. We don’t see things purely; we don’t get saved. We have, instead, songs and prayers as if it were so.

This deliberate ambivalence of the conclusion points to elements of the narrative’s structure–indeed, highlights the ways that this narrative is highly structured. I would even say, crafted in terms of film structure. What we see is that the structure of autobiographical nonfiction need not simply be given by the chronology or events of the life. In classic film structure, there are three acts. The first act (usually about 20 minutes long) sets up the normal world of the film, a problem for the protagonists, and a turning point–a surprising complication of the problem that sets the rest of the film in motion and will need to be solved by the end. In this narrative, the clear turning point happens with Toby in the car with Dwight, bracing for the next curve: Toby’s ‘father’ problem is complicated, not solved, by Dwight–but also Toby’s own complicity in it. The second act offers a series of complications, leading up to a final complication (second act turning point) that leads to the climax of the film in the third act. The third act is usually a two-part conclusion: a climax (in TBL, the escape from Dwight, heading off to Hill) and then a resolution in which the new reality for the protagonist is established. In this narrative, the resolution should be the happy ending pointing toward the future. Instead, we get a future that isn’t so bright, and a resolution that takes us back to a happy moment of the past. Why structure things this way?

Whatever your answers, keep this narrative structure in mind for later consideration with your final project. Remember the three-act structure of film writing that I associate with nonfiction narrative–and even further, with a thesis of academic argument.