Frederick Douglass : David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom recounts the life of Frederick Douglass, a black American who escaped slavery to become one of the most prominent abolitionist figures in American History. Two significant themes throughout Blight’s novel are the disparities between Douglass’s private and public life due to the lack of information he publicly disclosed about his personal affairs, and his public portrayal as a self-made man.
The absence of information regarding Douglass’s private life in his three autobiographies, countless publications, and speeches, causes the impacts of many key actors within Douglass’s life, such as his wife, Anna, and rumored mistress, Ottilie Assing, to be forgotten.
However, Blight synthesizes the information in Douglass’s three autobiographies and merges these narratives with primary documents from Douglass’s peers and fellow historians’ work to produce an alternative narrative. Because of this unification, Blight is able to shed light on the experiences of these forgotten individuals and reassign their agency. This paper will focus on a specific point in the novel where Blight highlights the experiences of Anna Douglass and Ottilie Assing, and will evaluate how his decision to include their experiences breaks down Douglass’s publicly projected image as a self-made man.
In 1863, the Douglass family became increasingly involved with the Civil War. Two of the Douglass children enlisted to fight for the Union, another left home for Mississippi to be a recruiter of black troops, and Frederick himself became a prominent leader in the war effort.1 During this period, Douglass spoke proudly and publicly of his childrens’ military service and
his excitement for the Emancipation Proclamation, calling it “the greatest event of the century.”2 However, there was a lot going on in Douglass’s personal life, which he hid from the public realm and omitted from his autobiographies. In writing Douglass’s biography, Blight notes that all Douglass scholars are heavily reliant on these three autobiographies in which:
he [Douglass] is a self-made hero who leaves a great deal unsaid, hidden from his readers and his biographers… it is as if he slips in and out of the room right when we so wish to know more – anything more about his private thoughts, motivations, and memories of conflicts within his personal life.3
To expand the historical narrative beyond Douglass’s personal accounts, Blight decided to pull back the curtains, and his alternative narrative includes the experiences of Anna and Ottilie during the Civil War, which counters Douglass’s presentation as a self-made man.
Blight’s alternative depiction of the event is as follows. For many Summers between the late 1850s and 1872, Ottilie became a frequent visitor to the Douglass household, serving as both Douglass’s intellectual and emotional companion. During these visits, she consistently attempted to reshape Douglass’s thoughts on specific issues, helped with his newspaper, and worked on her own writing. Anna did not always take kindly to Assing’s presence, as her relationship with Douglass was likely intimate as well as intellectual.
Assing’s biographer suggests that eventually, the two women reached some form of truce, but always held each other in contempt. Furthermore, Rosetta, Douglass’s daughter, recounted that during this period her mother took charge at home and rebelled in her own ways, claiming that if a visitor were rude to Anna they would be “vigorously repelled… in a manner more forceful than the said party deemed her capable of.”4 Although these details may appear small, they provide the added context necessary to shed light on Douglass’s personal affairs. To understand the rationale behind Blight’s decision to include these details and their impacts, a theoretical understanding of the production of history is necessary.
In his book Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot examines the production of gaps in historical narratives. Trouillot refers to gaps, such as Douglass’s omission of Anna and Ottilie’s experiences, as “silences.” He claims that these silences are ubiquitous in history because all events enter history with some of their parts missing.5 This results from the roles of two main actors within the production of history; the chronicler and the narrator.
The chronicler is responsible for fact creation and provides a play-by-play account of a particular event he witnesses, yet silences are still inherent in the chronicler’s account because he only provides a description of occurrences that matter to the event.6 The narrator, on the other hand, is responsible for fact retrieval and the interpretation of events. The narrator describes the life of an entity, person, or thing,7 and yet silences are also created in this aspect of the historical process as narrators do not retrieve all facts equally.8 By using Trouillot’s ideology, it is easier to understand the roles and decisions of Blight and Douglass in the production of their narratives.
According to Trouillot’s definitions, Frederick Douglass silenced the experiences of Anna and Ottilie through his neglect to acknowledge them publicly and in his autobiography. Furthermore, due to Douglass’s unique position as an autobiographer, he is both the chronicler and the narrator, responsible for both fact creation and retrieval. Douglass knew the stories of Anna and Ottilie, yet created silences because he did not believe that the women were important in the portrayal of his desired narrative. Instead, he decided to emphasize the military service of his children and the possibilities of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Blight, on the other hand, as the narrator of the story, produced an alternative historical narrative. The chronicle was created through primary sources such as Douglass’s autobiography, Rosetta’s letters, and the work of other historians such as Assings’ biographer. In this case, according to Trouillot, new facts only enter the story because they matter in some sense, no matter how minimal.9 Therefore, as the narrators of Frederick Douglass’s story, Blight and Douglass disagreed on what was important. Furthermore, based on Blight’s earlier discussion of Douglass’s portrayal of himself as a “self-made hero,” he likely included the two women’s experiences, to better depict the actors who impacted Douglass’ life.
Trouillot’s explanation of the production of silences in historical narratives allows the reader to understand how and why Douglass omitted the two women’s experiences; however, it is less helpful in understanding why Blight decided to include them in his alternative narrative. On the other hand, Sarah Maza’s book, Thinking About History, offers a more compelling rationale. Maza argues that until recently, the makers of history were men with the power to affect the course of events in the world, which caused old historical narratives to primarily center themselves around the stories of prominent male leaders in a phenomenon she calls, “The History of Great Men.”10 Over time, however, through the work of historians such as E.P Thompson, there has been an adoption of a “new social history,” which is more focused on poor and marginalized individuals rather than a few elites.11
By focusing on these oppressed groups, historians hope to assign agency to the people they study, demonstrating that they did not suffer or act passively, but took action in their circumstances.12 Furthermore, Maza claims that women are among the groups whose agency has been recovered more recently as Women’s History has become more prominent in the last few decades.13 Through Maza’s understanding of the evolution of historical production, it becomes evident both why Blight decided to include the stories of influential women in Douglass’s life, and the impacts of his decision.
First, Blight’s inclusion of Ottilie’s experience reassigns her agency by demonstrating the symbiotic relationship she shared with Douglass. Blight mentions that she “tried futilely to reshape Douglass’s views on various subjects, especially religion” and “assist[ed] Douglass with the newspaper and [wrote] her own columns.”14 Although it was likely known that Douglass and Ottillie were intellectual companions, by tangibly representing the two as co-workers Blight better represents Ottilie’s impact on Douglass.
According to Maza, this is a central task of women’s history; to show how the relationship between women and men has shaped every society in the past, even when the presence of female actors is concealed by dominant ideologies.”15 Through Blight’s inclusion of Ottilie’s experience, he continues to break down the notion of Douglass as a “self-made hero,” by representing how Douglass was not a lone actor in the creation of his ideology, but rather was to some extent influenced by the women around him. Furthermore, by contrasting Douglass’s narrative with Blight’s the reader is able to tangibly see the evolution of history as discussed by Maza.
Second, the inclusion of Anna’s experience in her thankless role as the matriarch of the Douglass household adds color to her impact on the people surrounding Douglass. In Rosetta’s recollections of her mother, she notes that she “honored her mother for being frugal for her great skill as a housekeeper.”16 By including these depictions of Anna, Maza argues that Blight uncovers major aspects of both women’s and social history. The first of which, is that according to Maza, one of the reasons for women’s long-standing historical invisibility was the assumption that they did not work. However, in nearly every society, the majority of women have engaged in lifelong labor, either paid or unpaid.17
In the case of Anna Douglass, it is clear that managing a household of five children with a husband frequently absent on speaking circuits and being a lone-parent during the burial of her daughter Annie, was a lifetime of labor.18 Because her husband Frederick is a figurehead of American Society, it is clear how her story became lost. According to Maza, the silence surrounding Anna Douglas can be understood because families have traditionally been defined by the identity and status of the men who headed the households.19
By his inclusion of Anna’s experience, Blight expands the narrative of the Douglass family beyond the patriarch, and provides the reader with a more holistic understanding of Frederick Douglass’s personal life. This is essential, because as Blight notes in Chapter Five, “Douglass’s autobiographical writing is often extremely self-centered, drawing hard boundaries around his sole character – portraying himself as the melodramatic self-made hero.”20 Thus, by including Anna and Ottilie’s experiences Blight is able to break down Douglass’s male-focused depiction and represent how these two women impacted and influenced the life of Frederick Douglass.
Through the inclusion of Anna and Ottilie’s experiences, Blight creates an alternative historical narrative to the life of Frederick Douglass and breaks down his portrayal as a self-made man. Furthermore, Blight reassigns agency to the two women as key actors in American history by establishing the influential roles they played in Douglass’s life.
When viewed through the theoretical framework laid out by Trouillot and Maza, it is clear how the omission of Anna and Ottilie’s experiences from Douglass’s autobiographies is representative of much broader themes in the production of historical narratives. Hopefully, historians will continue to rewrite the missing pieces in history and produce alternative narratives to “The History of Great Men,” and in doing so will reassign agency to the influences of many great women in history.
Frederick Douglass by Michael Slattery
1 Blight, David W. 2018. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 387.
4Information and quotations regarding the relationship between Anna Douglass and Ottilie Assing found in: Ibid, 387-388.
5 Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2015. Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 49.6Ibid, 50.
10 Maza, Sarah. 2017. Thinking About History. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 10. 11Ibid, 25.
12 Ibid, 33.
13 Ibid, 34.
14 Blight, David W. 2018. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 387. 15 Maza, Sarah. 2017. Thinking About History. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 39. 16 Blight, David W. 2018. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 387.
17 Maza, Sarah. 2017. Thinking About History. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 37.18 Ibid, 39.
19 Ibid, 38.
20 Blight, David W. 2018. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 69.