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.


More Metonymy: the thread of quotation

The second paragraph in “Quotation and Originality” provides a good example of Emerson’s use of, and philosophical interest in, metonymy–as well as its difference from metaphor. Here is the paragraph:

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, – and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, – that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws ; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. The Patent-Office Commissioner knows that all machines in use have been invented and re-invented over and over; that the mariner’s compass, the boat, the pendulum, glass, movable types, the kaleidoscope, the railway, the power-loom, etc., have been many times found and lost, from Egypt, China, and Pompeii down; and if we have arts which Rome wanted, so also Rome had arts which we have lost ; that the invention of yesterday of making wood indestructible by means of vapor of coal-oil or paraffine was suggested by the Egyptian method which has preserved its mummy-cases four thousand years.

Metaphor: the warp and woof of every moment, a metaphorical image of weaving, picked up by “thread” and strands–a metaphor we use all the time: the ‘thread’ of an idea in a book or discussion. Emerson’s “thread” here–or as we also could call it, his philosophy, his thesis–is that all ideas and thoughts are effects of quotation because “all minds quote.”

However, the idea of quotation is further elaborated with metonymy, where an idea is represented or discussed by way of language and image that are directly associated with the idea.

Metonymy: the various actions and materials associated with quotation: books, reading, writing. And of course, these metonymic associations are particularly relevant to the essayist, certainly Emerson, who spends his life engaging with books as a reader and writer.  Emerson further extends the metonymy to the invention of machines he discusses, reinforcing the idea that all inventions are quotations of previous machines–and the ideas that those machines are based on. In this way Emerson stretches the metonymy (various things associated with the idea of quotation) to the point of metaphor (quoting a chair). But in Emerson’s philosophy of quotation, the invention of a machine or a chair is a real act of quotation (not just a metaphorical one), since ideas circulate through our thinking, reading, and writing.  In fact, I would argue that the very word “invention” here is being directly associated with writing and reading.  We can imagine inventors getting their ideas from books and other texts (blueprints, documents). But even further, I hear Emerson quoting his way back to a much older sense of “invention” from classical rhetoric: to invent means to discover, to come upon an idea. And in the rhetorical tradition, the “invention” of an argument emerges not with an original idea, but through the process of finding it already existing in previous models of thinking and writing that one studies, imitates, adapts.

How can a better grasp of metonymy help us in studying nonfiction and the essay? Metonymy is a figure of speech, just as metaphor is. But in the ways this figure focuses on details and real things associated with the idea, proximate to it (a book and its relation to the act of quotation), we can think of it as both figurative and literal at the same time. The figurative literalism or realism of this rhetorical figure will therefore be of interest in a genre (nonfiction) that wants to represent the world non-fictively. Think of it like a close-up in film. You are looking at the real thing–but in looking that closely, you might also be looking at something you haven’t seen before, something unfamiliar, surprising. This is how metonymy can work in an essay.

We will see more of this at work in Annie Dillard’s writing, a writer who reads and quotes from Emerson.