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, and imaginative properties that we see from the first paragraph forward–that very rhetoric that Garrison assures readers Douglass will not employ.  In other words, Douglass is told to document slavery “as it is,” but wants to write, more like Emerson and 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 the essayist writing about herself or himself, 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.



Douglass and Revision

Another facet of autobiographical freedom we learn from Frederick Douglass–and another lesson we can take into our own writing–concerns revision. Douglass’s narrative doesn’t end with the 1845 publication of the Narrative of the Life. In two succeeding editions of his autobiography, Douglass expands the slave narrative into a more complete story of his life. And he also provides some key revisions.

We encounter the link between autobiography and revision as early as Franklin’s claim that one advantage of writing his life’s story would be to correct it the second time around, much like a printer correcting a draft. We see it, surely, in the ways Douglass learns to write: by revising (in other senses of the word) the assumptions of the slaveholders–writing between the lines, as he so memorably puts it. So, revision is another significant metonymy for the autobiographer.

Here are links to several key revisions in Douglass’s autobiography:

  • My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): revision of his discussion of his mother and her absence. We see that she is absent from him, removed by slavery–but has a very distinct place in his memory.
  • An expanded and revised narration of his first experiences (and difficulties) as an abolitionist speaker–where the first Narrative leaves off.
  • In his final edition, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (final version 1891), Douglass explains the method of his escape.

We can also consider lessons in revision that we can learn from Douglass and apply to our own writing–including the critical essay you are working on this week. I have in mind at least three we might borrow into our writing practice:

  1. Developing and expanding the critical reflection of his focus (be it a personal experience or an argument about slavery–usually the two entwined) by slowing down, taking his time, writing at greater length, providing close readings of scenes, memories, and language. In key moments, Douglass writes at length–doesn’t let us leave an idea before it is fully explored.
  2. Having explicit statements of his point, his argument, in key places: this is particularly helpful as a balance to the longer development he provides. The longer passages have lots of implications; Douglass is not afraid to be explicit in key moments to reinforces what we are seeing. This was the turning point because…
  3. Rhetorical figures, figurative language, diction: Douglass pays sharp attention to the implications of his language–and the language of slavery–and turns our attention toward grasping the role that language plays in understanding (and in some cases, failing to understand) slavery.