"No Struggle, No Progress": Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights

By Westerman, William | Western Folklore, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

"No Struggle, No Progress": Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights


Westerman, William, Western Folklore


"No Struggle, No Progress": Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights. By Wolfgang Mieder. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2001. Pp. viii + 532, preface. $79.95 cloth)

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is one of the most important figures in American letters. Like his contemporaries Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, Douglass concerned himself in his writings with issues of justice and ethics. But unlike the others, he was a giant of oral literature as well as of written literature. His work shows that written literature does not supersede oral literature-and that mastery of oral forms augments one's abilities as a writer and thinker.

The work of Frederick Douglass is the subject of a splendid reading by folklorist and paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder, whose articles on Douglass' use of proverbs (Mieder, 2001) are now expanded into this full-length study and concordance, just as he had done for Abraham Lincoln (2000). What emerges is an appreciation of Frederick Douglass's brilliance as a wordsmith as well as his ceaseless struggle for justice. Here, as elsewhere, Mieder wears his humanistic heart on his sleeve, and explicitly and repeatedly credits his subject for contributing to the advancement of human rights. In the present study, Mieder encompasses not only the three autobiographies, but speeches and articles as well as other Douglass writings. He comes close to naming Douglass an ethnologist in his own right, using the term "ethnologically invaluable" in reference to a slave-plantation chapter in the autobiographical My Bondage and My Freedom and in reference to the address, "The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered" (11). Mieder makes no secret of his respect for Frederick Douglass, both writer and man.

The heart of the present work is in the first hundred pages, a study of Douglass' use of proverbial language. The remaining 400-plus pages are a "key-word index" organized alphabetically by proverb, with the full text of the selection (s) of writing in which Douglass used that proverb. By itself, Mieder's study is brief enough that it could profitably be read by students in undergraduate or graduate courses; the rest of the book is useful reference and displays the variety and breadth of Douglass' literary and folk knowledge. Inasmuch as the only shortcoming of this book is its steep pricetag, perhaps the publisher would consider releasing a paperback version of Mieder's essay without the key-word index, to make it affordable for students.

Mieder's great contribution in this book is his demonstration that folk speech-mastery of orality-improves written speech (even though Douglass' rhetoric was often written for speaking aloud), and that mastery of folk forms improves both literary merit and the effectiveness of rhetoric. This he shows many times over, selecting biblical and folk proverbs to illustrate Douglass's genius for using words as tools of social change. Mieder does devote several important sections of the book to non-proverbial expressions, principally maritime and animal metaphors, in Douglass' speech; but it is upon the lack of attention paid to proverbs by prior scholars that Mieder fixes his folklorist's gaze: "Even when on occasion a proverb might be cited to illustrate the metaphorical style of Douglass, both literary and historical scholars seem to miss the obvious fact that the great orator is very consciously integrating proverbs into his oral speech and autobiographical, epistolary, and journalistic writings" (2). …

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