Frederick Douglass and Transcendentalism
Perhaps it seems strange to see Frederick Douglass, whose character and thought were formed in the furnace of slavery, associated with the Transcendentalists, and indeed it is. Yet one could make the case that in philosophical, literary, and activist terms, his life shows many transcendental parallels, if not direct influences, and he would lecture in Concord and Boston and meet Emerson, Thoreau, Dr. Channing, and Parker, and join them in their support of John Brown.
Like the transcendentalists, Douglass believed in self-development and self-reliance, and few others could show as vividly the value of this philosophy. As a writer, he understood the value of the first-person voice, and he had such a remarkable and inspiring story to tell, as he did many times, waking his neighbors in ways that Thoreau could only hardly imagine. Like them, he had great reason to believe in self-education and was certain that he had a message the world must hear, joining the lecture circuit so well travelled by Emerson and Parker. He was the most eloquent supporter of the cause of abolition, although he broke with William Garrison because, like the transcendentalists, he was a true intellectual individualist who would not be ruled by any one else, not even for a cause he so fervently believed in. Like Thoreau, he believed that the moral individual was responsibility to articulate his view of truth until it could be heard by others. As William Andrews says in his introduction to The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, "Frederick Douglass's basic idea of his own individuality, his own quintessential identity, lay not in his racial affiliations or his American allegiances but in his sense of himself as a person with a moral mission. . . [he] stood, not just for freedom, but for intellectual and moral integrity in the articulation and pursuit of freedom."(Andrews, 17)
Douglass Web Sites
Selected Criticism on Douglass and transcendentalism:
Nichols, William W. "Individualism and Autobiographical Art: Frederick Douglass and Henry Thoreau." CLA Journal, 16 (Dec. 1972), 145-58.
- DeLombard, Jeannine. "'Eye-Witness to the Cruelty': Southern Violence and Northern Testimony in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative." American Literature 73:2 (2001 June), pp. 245-75.
- Zwarg, Christina. "The Work of Trauma: Fuller, Douglass, and Emerson on the Border of Ridicule." Studies in Romanticism 41:1 (2002 Spring), pp. 65-88.