In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Frederick Douglass faces the problem of detailing his transformation from slave to man in a manner which is acceptable to both his audience and his own authorial purpose. Douglass must walk the thin line between being powerful and being threatening to his white audience. He attempts to avoid becoming a threat by appropriating the image of a self-made man, as defined in William E. Channing's essay entitled "Self-Culture." Douglass constructs his manhood in terms of civilization, a tactic later employed by Ida B. Wells in her anti-lynching campaign. Although physical strength and the escape from civilization into the wilderness was an equally popular construction of manhood at the time, Douglass follows Channing's belief that true manhood is achieved through knowledge, the mastery of letters and cultivation of manners. This conception of masculinity centers around moral uprightness and self-control as a means of suppressing passions and desires, the latter being something that most of Douglass' masters lacked. If civilization indicates manhood, then the brutal masters described in Narrative are not men at all. This reversal makes Douglass, the slave turned self-cultured man, a representation of true manhood.
According to Channing, every man has the potential to be a great man. Through self-culture, and the resulting moral and intellectual growth, men can expand and live up their potentials, becoming ideal men. Channing understands moral sense as the suppression of passions and desires that are inherent in human nature, but are not good for soul.
When a man looks into himself, he discovers...d...
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... image of this civilized man is reinforced by Douglass' narrative voice which takes on the Harvard style tone, that sounds much like Channing's voice in "Self-Culture." This tactic may have been to support his use of Channing's ideas, but it also gave Douglass the unique position of speaking in the same style as his audience. This would perhaps be unexpected by his white Northern audience, but nevertheless reinforces Douglass' civility. By taking popular conceptions of civilization, self-control and literacy, and applying them to himself, Douglass invents in himself the representation of true manhood.
Channing, William E. The Works of William E. Channing. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1875.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1968.
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