Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

Sentimental Abolition in Douglass's Decade: Revision, Erotic Conversion, and the Politics of Witnessing in "The Heroic Slave" and My Bondage and My Freedom

If the volume now presented to the public were a mere work of art, the history of its misfortune might be written in two very simple words--TOO LATE. The nature and character of slavery have been subjects of an almost endless variety of artistic representation; and after the brilliant achievements in that field, and while those achievements are yet fresh in the memory of the million, he who would add another to the legion, must possess the charm of transcendent excellence, or apologize for something worse than rashness.

--Editor's preface, My Bondage and My Freedom, 18551

Frederick Douglass stands as the only African American of the nineteenth century to receive sustained and serious critical attention. Amidst the celebration and republications of previously underaddressed works by African Americans, Douglass's work continues to be central; in the 1990s two volumes of critical essays and an additional award-winning biography have taken their places amongst Douglass scholarship. Criticism that addresses Douglass's artful narrative representations is now plentiful enough that another essay might easily be dismissed with the two words quoted in the epigraph--"TOO LATE."2 Yet, in the opening sentences of his preface, the editor of Douglass My Bondage and My Freedom refers to the very dynamics that justify another article that takes Douglass as its subject. The subtle, though not oblique, reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin3--the brilliant achievement fresh in the memory of millions--alerts contemporary readers of Douglass's post-Stowe writings not only to the politics of authority and revision at work in his novella "The Heroic Slave" ( 1853) and his second autobiography ( 1855), but also to his complicated negotiation of sentiment.

Douglass distances himself from Garrisonian moral suasion at the very same time that he adopts a heightened sentimentality as a rhetorical strategy in his own fictional and autobiographical writings. While the Douglass of the Narrative ( 1845), his first autobiography, does not engage in consistent sentimental renderings of domesticity, the 1855 narrator does. Recent critics acknowledge Douglass's use of sentiment and of Stowe, while some emphasize his simultaneous search for, relation to, and reconstruction of (white) paternal power and the rhetoric of the U.S. revolution.4 While I touch upon Douglass's articulation of

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