Road to Africa: Frederick Douglass's Rome

By Levine, Robert S. | African American Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Road to Africa: Frederick Douglass's Rome


Levine, Robert S., African American Review


Frederick Douglass visited Rome in 1887 and described his sojourn in the concluding section of his 1892 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, an expanded version of his 1881 memoir of the same name. Typically, nineteenth-century American travelers to Rome were drawn to the art and history of the city, and even to aspects of Roman Catholicism, while at the same time they recoiled from what they perceived to be the decadence, agedness, and duplicity of Protestant culture's traditionally seductive anti-republican enemy. [1] Much of what Douglass has to say about Rome in Life and Times suggests his familiarity with other travel writings of the period, and his desire to present himself, in part, as the archetypal conflicted American traveler.

Though he suffers an initial disappointment when arriving in newer areas of Rome, which remind him of "Paris, London, or New York," by the next day Rome has become "Rome": "The Eternal City, seated on its throne of seven hills, fully gave us all it had promised, banished every feeling of disappointment, and filled our minds with ever-increasing wonder and amazement" (Life and Times 572). He praises Rome's art and architecture, which he says reveal an aesthetics and history lacking in the United States, and he seems envious of the ways in which the rituals and practices of Roman Catholicism bring "a great comfort to these people" (577). But even as he confesses his attraction to the city's spiritual grandeur, he voices skepticism and concern about the possibly mendacious, despotic, and aristocratic character of the Roman Catholic Church. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was also attracted to aspects of Roman Catholic art and religion, Douglass worries over the sheer worldliness of the Church as an economic and i mperial institution. Declaring that "about every fifth man met with ... is at work in some way to maintain [the Church's] power, ascendency, and glory," he wryly notes that "religion seems to be in Rome the chief business by which men live," and he condemns the "fanaticism ... encouraged by a church so worldly-wise as that of Rome" (575). The doubleness of his response, critique and fascination, is nicely captured in his remarks on St Peter's. Commenting on "the wealth and grandeur within," Douglass points out that "the Church of Rome today receives gifts from all the Christian world, our own republican country included." Yet despite his portrayal of the Church as a monetary power, Douglass finds himself succumbing to the atmosphere of "ethereal glory" at St. Peter's, and he concludes his remarks on a note of begrudging admiration: "St. Peter's, by its vastness, wealth, splendor, and architectural perfections, acts upon us like some great and overpowering natural wonder. It awes us into silent, speechless adm iration" (576). Rome is both unnatural and natural, subject to critique and yet somehow beyond critique. It offers a kind of solace ultimately unavailable in Protestant/republican America.

Although Douglass's conflicted responses to Rome can make him seem very much the conventional nineteenth-century American traveler, I will be focusing here on some of the less conventional aspects of his presentation of Rome in Life and Times and other, more private writings of the period: the way in which he uses Rome to address what he regards as the conjoined issues of race and progress in the United States, and the way in which he conceives of Rome in relation to Africa. But first it would be useful to provide some background on his travels.

From October 1886 to May 1887 Douglass toured England, France, Italy, Egypt, and Greece with his second wife, nee Helen Pitts, a white woman whom he'd married two years earlier, in 1884, at the age of 66, less than two years after the death of his first wife, Anna. A graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, Helen worked as Douglass's secretary when he was Recorder of Deeds in Washington in the early 1880s, and their marriage was greeted with considerable controversy: Douglass was attacked by blacks and whites (including Helen's family) for marrying someone outside of his "reace. …

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