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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

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A NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, and TIME TOP 10 BOOK OF THE YEAR The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era. As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slav A NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, and TIME TOP 10 BOOK OF THE YEAR The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era. As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery. Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights. In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.


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A NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, and TIME TOP 10 BOOK OF THE YEAR The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era. As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slav A NEW YORK TIMES, WALL STREET JOURNAL, and TIME TOP 10 BOOK OF THE YEAR The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era. As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery. Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights. In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.

30 review for Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This book is beautiful. One description called it "cinematic" and I think that's pretty accurate. You feel the sense of Douglass and the beautiful prose really captures his words and the time. It's annoying that people call him an "imperfect man." I mean, who isn't an imperfect person? This book certainly covers the warts and all. What's amazing about Douglass is that he never wavered. He never softened. He was strident until the end. After talking against slavery, he moved on to lynching and th This book is beautiful. One description called it "cinematic" and I think that's pretty accurate. You feel the sense of Douglass and the beautiful prose really captures his words and the time. It's annoying that people call him an "imperfect man." I mean, who isn't an imperfect person? This book certainly covers the warts and all. What's amazing about Douglass is that he never wavered. He never softened. He was strident until the end. After talking against slavery, he moved on to lynching and then Jim Crow. He wasn't soft like Booker T. Washington. He wasn't afraid to call out everybody--Susan B. Anothony, Lincoln, everybody. And he eviscerated the Southern Democrats. He was also incredibly prescient in what would happen in the south (it got worse). He was not predjudiced against immigrants and he fought for womens suffrage (even when the suffragette's showed their racism and their claws). The book is long and not all parts of it are necessary, but it's beautiful!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley We like, want, our heroes to be uncompleted, to always be heroic and constant while in the spotlight, and to leave that spotlight before they change politics or ideals. We want to remember Lincoln as the great emancipator not as the man who at one point wanted all freed slaves to return to Africa, a place they had never seen. That ruins the image of martyr Lincoln. We have the same feeling of many of our heroes, including Frederick Douglass. Who despite what some pe Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley We like, want, our heroes to be uncompleted, to always be heroic and constant while in the spotlight, and to leave that spotlight before they change politics or ideals. We want to remember Lincoln as the great emancipator not as the man who at one point wanted all freed slaves to return to Africa, a place they had never seen. That ruins the image of martyr Lincoln. We have the same feeling of many of our heroes, including Frederick Douglass. Who despite what some people think is, in fact, dead. Perhaps the memory of Douglass is doing great things in a symbolical sense, but the actual man is long dust. For most people, Douglass is the man who escaped slavery and publicly spoke out against it. Some people even confuse him with Henry “Box” Brown. Many students read Douglass either his Autobiography, or perhaps more commonly, the selection detailing his learning to read. The drawback to the commonly used selection is that it is many times the student’s only reading of Douglass, who sometimes some students think is a woman who is having sex with her mistress. People today have heard of Douglass, but they don’t know of Frederick Douglass. David W. Blight corrects that in his massive, though it does not read that way, new biography of Douglass. Perhaps the hardest part of any Douglass biography is the reconstruction of his early life. This isn’t because of a lack of memoirs, but a surfeit of them, including subtle but important differences. Did he ask to be taught or did Sophia Auld teach him because of her own idea? A combination of both perhaps? Blight’s reconstructing of Douglass’s early life makes it clear when there is a question about what happened, where Douglass himself differs or where scholars raise questions. He does not choose sides; he deals with facts and context. A refreshing thing. It is also something that he uses when dealing with Douglass’s relationship to his first wife Anna Murray, a free black woman who played a central role in Douglass’s escaping slavery. Murray was illiterate, not stupid, but illiterate as common for many people than. She and Douglass married soon after his escape, and they stayed married until her death. She birthed his children, she gave him a home to return to. Sadly, we do not know what she thought about her husband, about his relationship with the white women who would stay at her house, or about his feelings towards her for she is left out of his writing – much of interior family life seems to be. Blight, it seems, is slightly frustrated by this mystery of Anna Murray, and in the beginning, it almost seems like he is being, not condescending or dismissive, but almost shrugging off, not an accurate description but close. As the biography progress, however, you become grateful and happy that Blight does not presume to know what Anna Murray would think. He does suggest authors that try to channel her, but Blight keeps her presence as a real woman, almost shaking his head at Douglass’s silence. It helps that he keeps Douglass’s second wife, Helen Pitts, off page for much of the time as well. Blight’s depiction of Douglass is within the context of his time and dealing with those who see contradictions and problems in who Douglass was – such as his expansionist tendencies, his view on Native Americans. Blight presents an imperfect human, as all humans are, but presents him with understanding and a feeling of fascination that are easily transmitted to the reader.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Hadrian

    An impressive and revealing biography of a major figure in American history. Douglass had lived an extraordinary life, and it is hard to keep track of all of his separate tasks and roles through his three autobiographies. From his own life, he was born a slave, then became a fugitive, then a fighter against the criminal institutions of slavery, and then had some decades of life in peace and comparative victory. His biographies tell a story of self-creation and independence, supported by a relentl An impressive and revealing biography of a major figure in American history. Douglass had lived an extraordinary life, and it is hard to keep track of all of his separate tasks and roles through his three autobiographies. From his own life, he was born a slave, then became a fugitive, then a fighter against the criminal institutions of slavery, and then had some decades of life in peace and comparative victory. His biographies tell a story of self-creation and independence, supported by a relentless work ethic. Blight's own biography underlines this own personal achievement but does not neglect the turmoil of Douglass' own personal life - overwork and frequent illness from a staggering travel schedule, a combative nature that played off well against those who wanted to retain slavery, but also led to problems with other abolitionists, and the isolating effects of the violent trauma of slavery itself, including a difficult family life. He was not given to complacency or ease. When some other abolitionists proposed a retreat from activism or current political institutions as too corrupt, he said this was not enough. He went on, even if he doubted that slavery would be abolished in his own lifetime. Yet when it did finally happen, and he found himself suddenly past that goal that unachievable, still others said their work was ended, he said this was not enough - suffrage was next. Blight does allow for extensive quotations from Douglass' speeches and writings but also situates them in contemporary debates, making it easier to place Douglass as a figure who defined the contemporary debate on slavery and abolition, and how he would thus interact with other figures. To give one example - he finds John Brown having noble ideals but backed off from earlier support, as he was concerned about Brown not knowing enough of the local terrain to launch an insurgency. The book is a bit long and tends to wander, but this is understood because there are so many roles the man played. He was, at times, a newspaper editor, charge-de-affairs to Haiti, fighting for his life with the plantation overseer, thrown out of railroad cars, or a patron, or a husband, or a husband with a wandering eye. In the best biographies you get a sense of the human being who was there, and the world they lived in, and Blight finds that Frederick Douglass, even though the mythologies and monuments that have been left ahead of him.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Donna Davis

    2.5 stars, rounded up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the 2.5 stars, rounded up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again. Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods. First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with. The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain. As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Baltimore, Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American. But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself. Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it. The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise? Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it. So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject. If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Saunders

    Monumental biography of one of 19th Century America’s most remarkable men: Frederick Douglass, who went in a few decades from runaway slave to abolitionist figure and writer to presidential adviser, political rabble-rouser and living legend. Douglass hasn't received a full biography in decades (not since a tiresome psychobiography by William McFeely) so I was thrilled about this, especially knowing Blight's other work. It certainly didn't disappoint, though I'll caution that Blight's approach is Monumental biography of one of 19th Century America’s most remarkable men: Frederick Douglass, who went in a few decades from runaway slave to abolitionist figure and writer to presidential adviser, political rabble-rouser and living legend. Douglass hasn't received a full biography in decades (not since a tiresome psychobiography by William McFeely) so I was thrilled about this, especially knowing Blight's other work. It certainly didn't disappoint, though I'll caution that Blight's approach is a little idiosyncratic. While the book does follow a roughly chronological narrative, he does zero in on specific writings and speeches of Douglass's, using them to frame his personal development, his reaction to specific events and how his inspiring words and human actions either complemented or diverged from each other. I found this particularly interesting the chapter on John Brown, showing how Douglass, the apostle of violent resistance to slavery, refused an opportunity to put words into action (though, in fairness, he may well have been put off by the quioxtic nature of Brown's enterprise). Blight also explores Douglass's fractious relations with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, politicians like Lincoln and Grant and younger black leaders who viewed the older Douglass more as a mouthpiece for the Republican Party than a devoted civil rights leader; his efforts to tangle post-emancipation with new issues (racial equality, women's suffrage and lynching), his fame and fractious personal life (from a menage-a-trois with his first wife and a German admirer to a dastardly son-in-law who repeatedly tried blackmailing, then destroying Douglass). At worst, Blight can loose track of the thread in his digressions, or engage in odd speculation (particularly when dealing with Douglass's first wife, who left little record making it hard to reconstruct her thoughts and actions). On the whole though, it's as insightful, thorough and engaging a documentary as a towering figure like Douglass deserves.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Scott Hitchcock

    It's amazing how little I knew about Douglass beyond a couple of headline bullets. When thinking of Civil Rights leaders the 1950's and 60's leaders are well documented in our society but not nearly enough attention is given to their predecessors. Douglass was an amazing orator to rival King and going on a tour of the south to do it during the reconstruction era at least as dangerous if not much more so than 80 years later. What was also amazing was his time abroad in Europe after escaping slave It's amazing how little I knew about Douglass beyond a couple of headline bullets. When thinking of Civil Rights leaders the 1950's and 60's leaders are well documented in our society but not nearly enough attention is given to their predecessors. Douglass was an amazing orator to rival King and going on a tour of the south to do it during the reconstruction era at least as dangerous if not much more so than 80 years later. What was also amazing was his time abroad in Europe after escaping slavery. His treatment there much better than in America a lesser man might have washed his hands of the situation or maybe just written on the topic rather than return. Then there's the grief aspect. He lost over ten grandchildren and a few of his children in the course of a few years. So much pain. I'm sure continuing in his struggle helped keep his mind off of is pain. The author does a good job of pointing out Douglass's flaws and humanizing him. No man is perfect. His struggles with other abolitionists and at times with woman's suffrages groups was at times very tenuous. Highly recommended.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Scott Pomfret

    This account of the life of Frederick Douglass convinced me that in a hundred years we will view anti-immigrant sentiment as we now look at those who opposed abolition. Not because "Prophet of Freedom" made any such case, but because all the bones of the current strife are within Douglass's life, writing, and oratory. Douglass was an incredibly prescient and forward-thinking man. To be sure, "Prophet of Freedom" is no hagiography. There's plenty to disturb modern ears. Douglass was virulently ant This account of the life of Frederick Douglass convinced me that in a hundred years we will view anti-immigrant sentiment as we now look at those who opposed abolition. Not because "Prophet of Freedom" made any such case, but because all the bones of the current strife are within Douglass's life, writing, and oratory. Douglass was an incredibly prescient and forward-thinking man. To be sure, "Prophet of Freedom" is no hagiography. There's plenty to disturb modern ears. Douglass was virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, and his emphasis on self reliance can come across as blaming the oppressed and his thirst for civil war as almost unprincipled. Moreover, his slavish adherence to the Republican party after it largely abandoned the project of Reconstruction disappoints. These flaws, however, do not detract from the powerful figure and autodidact who made his own life emblematic of the not-quite-endless possibilities of a determined and gifted black man even in an often unapologetic white slave-holding America. Blight's is a brisk, well-written, well-organized account that attempts mostly successfully not to rely too much on Douglass's prodigious auto-biographical output. Blight situates Douglass in his era, paints masterful portraits of Douglass's wives, children, and fellow travelers (and in particular of a trio of American presidents--Lincoln, Johnson and Grant--from the perspective of a contemporary person of color). Blight pulls no punches when addressing the flaws referenced above, but he does effectively contextualize them. In any event, Douglass's accomplishments were awesome and for all his pride his moral force remains resonant. I heartily recommend this biography.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Calzean

    This is a big book that held my interest for most pages. The book traces the life of Frederick Douglass in a linear progression. The early chapters on his years in slavery depend mostly on his autobiographies which is not surprising given the lack of other written sources. The best chapters related to the civil war and its aftermath. Again this is not surprising given this is the author's chosen field. At times the book sunk into a lot of detail which would be only for the determined fan. The autho This is a big book that held my interest for most pages. The book traces the life of Frederick Douglass in a linear progression. The early chapters on his years in slavery depend mostly on his autobiographies which is not surprising given the lack of other written sources. The best chapters related to the civil war and its aftermath. Again this is not surprising given this is the author's chosen field. At times the book sunk into a lot of detail which would be only for the determined fan. The author has an easy style which has produced a five star effort that provides an honest, and extremely well referenced, biography of a much needed man of his time.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    While I had known of Frederick Douglass since high school, the first time I really encountered him was while watching Ken Burns’ miniseries The Civil War in 1990, when Morgan Freeman stirringly read several of Douglass’ speeches and writings as part of the story. That is fitting, since Douglass was one of the most powerful writers and orators in all of American history and not just in the 19th century, when he had few rivals, if any. (Lincoln no doubt but who else?) David Blight has written an am While I had known of Frederick Douglass since high school, the first time I really encountered him was while watching Ken Burns’ miniseries The Civil War in 1990, when Morgan Freeman stirringly read several of Douglass’ speeches and writings as part of the story. That is fitting, since Douglass was one of the most powerful writers and orators in all of American history and not just in the 19th century, when he had few rivals, if any. (Lincoln no doubt but who else?) David Blight has written an amazing one volume biography of ?Douglass, who rose from a slave on the Maryland Eastern Shore to become the most visible negro and the most prolific autobiographer, not to mention the most recognizable voice for abolition and against slavery, racing, hatred and lynching in the period leading up to and following the US Civil War. This was an astonishing life, whose achievements and dilemmas remain relevant today. Blight has written an outstanding and highlyly readable account of this long story that does a good job at incorporating all of the personal variety, joys, and sorrows of this many as he lived a highly public life as well as carrying on with an extensive multigenerational family, developing and maintaining lasting professional relationships throughout the US and Europe, and conducting a long career of public service along the way. It is clear that Mr. Blight thinks the world of his subject (that seems easy enough to do). This is not a hagiography, however, and Douglass’s life is developed in its positives and negatives. What I liked the most about the book was how Douglass was situated within his times to help explain the tensions he had to work with once he began his career. The variety of positions within Abolitionism are clearly presented, as are the dynamics within the movement as the Civil War approached. The relationships between wormen’s rights advocates and anti slavery forces are also well developed, especially in the accounts of how Douglass wove his way through different activist communities. The shift from abolitionism to freedman’s rights during the Civil War and Reconstruction is also well presented, as are Douglass’s reactions to the retreat from Reconstruction after 1876. All of this history is very much living and breathing and is enlightening seen at a distance of 150 years. The complexity of Douglass as an individual comes across well in his dealings with family, political opponents, younger upstarts in battles against lynchings, and even with his former owners and tormentors in Maryland. Overall, Blight did a good job at presenting this complex story in as few pages as he did. Still, this is a long book but strangely one that leaves the reader looking for more to ingest. In particular, more detail into Douglass’s writings would have been appreciated, although I understand the need to make the book manageable within the context of a single volume. I have high expectations for the book, but it exceeded those expectations and is a fine book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Rooney

    I was over 90% done with this 36 hour audiobook when it was cruelly ripped out of my ears by the library, so I am going to call it done for now and hope to finish it later this year when my hold comes in again. This was a great biography of Douglass. I appreciate that it was honest about his flaws even as it demonstrated his importance to history.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ashleigh

    I received this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. TITLE - Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom AUTHOR - David W. Blight GENRE - Biography THESIS - Marvelous example of inspirational writing that gives a new perspective to be explored, of the complexity and prowess that was Frederick Douglass RATING - 3/5 SUMMARY - Blight's reconstruction of Frederick Douglass' early life is portrayed quite differently in comparison to other Douglass biographies. I found it to be most original, I received this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. TITLE - Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom AUTHOR - David W. Blight GENRE - Biography THESIS - Marvelous example of inspirational writing that gives a new perspective to be explored, of the complexity and prowess that was Frederick Douglass RATING - 3/5 SUMMARY - Blight's reconstruction of Frederick Douglass' early life is portrayed quite differently in comparison to other Douglass biographies. I found it to be most original, due to the directness of the facts presented, opposed to the authors interpretation of the events that unfolded. When retelling the story of how Douglass learned to read, Blight was unambiguous in the description. This seeming commitment to relaying the story in an authentic way left me underwhelmed with the portrayal of Douglass' wives. It is widely written that Douglass was unfaithful, and had affairs with white women. In a time of post slavery, this is a scandalous act that I feel it was a disservice not to include, along with more information about how this affected his marriage to Anna Murray & Helen Pitts. This is a story of the views, actions and opinions of a deeply complex man who was flawed, but also a hero to those who value equality. This book is an insightful humanization of a widely known and written about figure. "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass

  12. 5 out of 5

    Connie Lacy

    A tour de force biography of a fascinating man who helped bring an end to slavery in the United States.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Porter Broyles

    1. How well written is it? I purchased the audio book through Audible. The person who read the book has a very smooth seductive voice. When I first started listening to the book I kept thinking, "This guy needs to read sleazy romances." The story itself is well written and concise. I would put the prose and style at a lower level college course. It was not overly complex, but I would not consider it to be pulp history. 2. How interesting is the subject? Frederick Douglass is arguably one of the two 1. How well written is it? I purchased the audio book through Audible. The person who read the book has a very smooth seductive voice. When I first started listening to the book I kept thinking, "This guy needs to read sleazy romances." The story itself is well written and concise. I would put the prose and style at a lower level college course. It was not overly complex, but I would not consider it to be pulp history. 2. How interesting is the subject? Frederick Douglass is arguably one of the two or three most important African Americans in American history. I'm reluctant to say "Civil Rights" because he was fighting for something more basic than "Civil Rights", he fought for the emancipation of the slaves. His story is one that I was familiar with, but really didn't know. How did he escape? How did he become the phenom that he was? How did he get his name? What was his relationship to other abolitionist? How was he able to operate without fear of his former owner coming after him? What was his message? The book answers these questions and more. 3. Does the book offer novel insight into the subject or is it just regurgitating already known facts? For me, the book was very insightful. It was a 37 hour long audio book (912 pages per Goodread) and did not repeat facts any more than necessary. I was enthralled with the story. Blight does a good job at differentiating between Douglass the man and the myth. Not everything in the book is complimentary of Douglass. Some of the things that he stood for and advocated fly in the face of modern Civil Rights movement---but that is because he was a creature of his time. He was also somewhat stubborn (his loyalty to the Republican party being one of those issues.) The only real criticism that I have is that the book clearly leads you to believe that the friendship between Douglass and Ottilie Assing was more than just platonic. It might have been, but I felt that it was a little strong in reaching this conclusion.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Casey Wheeler

    I read this biography because I have not read one about Frederick Douglass although he has been indirectly addressed in an number of other books that I have read. This is a very detailed and exhaustive biography. That said, it is well written making it an engaging read. The author frequently refers to passages from the three autobiographies writtten by Douglass himself which provides a unique perspective to the book. While history has lionized the man, this biography points out his failings alon I read this biography because I have not read one about Frederick Douglass although he has been indirectly addressed in an number of other books that I have read. This is a very detailed and exhaustive biography. That said, it is well written making it an engaging read. The author frequently refers to passages from the three autobiographies writtten by Douglass himself which provides a unique perspective to the book. While history has lionized the man, this biography points out his failings along with his successes. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the the life of Frederick Douglass and the role he played in the development of our country. I received a free Kindle copy of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight courtesy of Net Galley  and Simon and Schuster, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazonand my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. This is the first book I have read by the author.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    This is an inspiring and beautifully written (if mad long) biography of an American hero. Blight brings out so many fascinating aspects of a historical character I never knew much about. His political and intellectual evolution are particularly fascinating. As he worked his way into the lecturing and writing profession, he at first embraced the tenets of Garrisonianism: anti-politics, disunionism, and a view of the Constitution as an essentially pro-slavery doctrine. This part of the book remind This is an inspiring and beautifully written (if mad long) biography of an American hero. Blight brings out so many fascinating aspects of a historical character I never knew much about. His political and intellectual evolution are particularly fascinating. As he worked his way into the lecturing and writing profession, he at first embraced the tenets of Garrisonianism: anti-politics, disunionism, and a view of the Constitution as an essentially pro-slavery doctrine. This part of the book reminded me a bit of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellision. Douglass was a dynamic orator, but Garrison preferred that he not question the party ideology. Douglass, however, drifted toward a more political anti-slavery position, as he simply couldn't refuse to rally any possible means of defeating slavery, especially once the Republican Party formed. Douglass had a tumultuous relationship with the party at first, although the Civil War transformed him into a true partisan, which he remained for the rest of his life. His post-Civil War politics help us show why Reconstruction failed. Douglass envisioned a bi-racial United States about as early as any prominent American did. He consistently called for federal intervention to protect AA's in the south, guarantee their right to vote and their ability to hold office, and punish the Redemptionists. However, when it came to the economic structure of the south, Douglass was very much a classical 19th century liberal. He preached thrift, hard work, and vocational training, never warming to ideas to redistribute land or wealth to give blacks a stronger material foothold in Southern society. He was in many ways an Alger-type bootstrapper, as were many if not most Republicans after the Civil War. He certainly was not an anti-federal government ideologue, like modern conservatives portray him, but in economic thinking he was very much a product of his time. There are some truly fascinating side trips and points in this book that I had no idea Douglass was involved with. For one, it was fascinating to see the kind of ethnic and racial animosity outside of whiteness. Douglass, for instance, put down the Irish, whom he said were drunken papists who deserved the vote less than AAs. He also portrayed blacks as more patriotic and well-assimilated than the noble but stubbornly unreformed Indian, who was doomed to extinction. Moreover, Blight chronicles Douglass' ambiguous relationship with American empire. Strangely, he believed for a time that US annexation of the DR or Haiti might be good for those people, despite his lamentations of the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow and lynching. The chronicle of his trips to England and Scotland, as well as his ambassadorship to Haiti, are fascinating in their examination of race, empire, and American politics. I rarely say, this but this history book truly was masterfully written. Blight seems to know Douglass well that his prose just melds perfectly with Douglass' words. There are absolutely fascinating extended analyses of Douglass' major speeches, which all deserve their status in the canon of American rhetoric. The book is wicked long though, and I wasn't enthralled at all times. Once biographies hit the 500 page mark (or 30 hour mark), I'm usually ready to be done no matter what. Still, this is a monumental work that deserves a place among the great biographies of American history. Blight also brings out Douglass the human being in a way that few biographies do. He shows Douglass the restless, defiant slave, the traveling orator, the booming voice of moral conscience, the man struggling to provide for a large family that never lived up to his greatness, the partisan, the editor, etc. Blight also brings out Douglass' family, including his strange relationships with women and his odd relationship with his first wife, Anna, who remained illiterate for his whole life. One last thought on Douglass: to me, it wasn't so much that Douglass was a visionary of the future, but a brilliant interpreter of the past and an adapter of sacred texts. The title "American prophet" is perfect for this Jeremiah, who refused to let a country rest as the great sin of slavery flourished. He understood the centrality of memory in politics, and he tried to make Americans during Reconstruction remember that they had fought for a more just republic, not one that would paper over the destruction of minority rights and and rise of racist mob rule. He also asked his fellow Americans to remember that blacks fought to save the Union while Southern whites fought to destroy it. Douglass called us to be what we should be, and the tragedy of his life, and of 19th century US history, was that he won a great victory in the destruction of slavery but then lost it as the country retreated into a cynical, materialistic, and virulently racist era. This book, and his life, are a reminder to never let such injustice flourish in our home again.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mark Miano

    Stupendous biography. Long review to come....

  17. 4 out of 5

    UChicagoLaw

    I am currently reading David Blight's new biography of Frederick Douglass. I haven't finished it yet, but it's clear to me that this is a major book and beautifully done. In a way we know a lot about Douglass, since he wrote so much about his own life. But we have lacked an independent and comprehensive vantage point. Blight deftly embeds Douglass in the history of slavery, the Abolition movement, and Reconstruction, makes evident his immense oratorical skill and his charismatic effect on others I am currently reading David Blight's new biography of Frederick Douglass. I haven't finished it yet, but it's clear to me that this is a major book and beautifully done. In a way we know a lot about Douglass, since he wrote so much about his own life. But we have lacked an independent and comprehensive vantage point. Blight deftly embeds Douglass in the history of slavery, the Abolition movement, and Reconstruction, makes evident his immense oratorical skill and his charismatic effect on others, and does not shrink from examining a less laudable part of Douglass's life, his complicated and sometimes seemingly exploitative relationships with women. - Martha C. Nussbaum

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian Denton

    If the animating spirit of the American experiment is to secure the blessings of liberty for the individual and for posterity then the preeminent founding father of America’s creed and country is Frederick Douglass. Few other people in the national history have advocated so beautifully, or so harrowingly, for human freedom and liberty as has the Sage of Cedar Hill. That his visage does not grace the stony permanence of Mount Rushmore alongside his junior counterparts of Washington, Jefferson, Ro If the animating spirit of the American experiment is to secure the blessings of liberty for the individual and for posterity then the preeminent founding father of America’s creed and country is Frederick Douglass. Few other people in the national history have advocated so beautifully, or so harrowingly, for human freedom and liberty as has the Sage of Cedar Hill. That his visage does not grace the stony permanence of Mount Rushmore alongside his junior counterparts of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln is a testament to the poverty of our country’s historical awareness and its enduring racial inequality. Until this error is remedied David W. Blight’s new biography—a book as weighty in its nearly 1,000 pages as Mount Rushmore’s ageless granite—must suffice as witness to the great man’s life. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom stands as the curious reader’s first stop in Douglass’s biographical corpus. Too often volumes from this school produce more of a symbol than a human in full. What emerges from Blight’s deep immersion into the life and times of his subject, however, is a well-written and honest account of the man more so than the myth. Here you’ll find not only the famous bardic hymns of human freedom and autonomy but also a portrait of the frailties and foibles of the man who produced them. The song of freedom sounded early in young Frederick Douglass’s life. Born into slavery, his first act as a freedom fighter was the liberation of his own self. Though he later extolled the hard virtues of independence and self-reliance, his personal freedom was the result of a kind of group effort. Blight’s telling of this portion of his story starts with the wife of Douglass’ enslaver, Sophia Auld. Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet and in so doing served as an unwitting agent of Douglass’s liberation. His enslaver soon discouraged these lessons but it was too late. The young man had caught the reading bug. In passages that will move the heart of any booklover, Blight pages through the young life of a slave enamored of reading and the awesome effect this passion exercises over the mind. Douglass’s newfound love culminates in his fateful discovery of Caleb Bingham’s The Columbian Orator, a collection of political essays, poems, and speeches that celebrates not only eloquence and articulation but also, most importantly for young Douglass, the importance of human rights and the liberal natural rights tradition. The Columbian Orator and the inspiration it lit in young Douglass’s soul blazed a path forward all the way through his daring escape from slavery, his career as an abolitionist expert in oratory and writing, his support of female suffrage, and, eventually, his role as a federal political operative in the nascent post-Civil War United States of America. And here is where Blight’s biography separates itself from other treatments of Douglass’s life. Blight’s telling of this journey is critical biography, not worshipful hagiography. Most books on Douglass, particularly his own autobiographies, understandably, present the American myth of the completely self-made man. Not so with Blight. Instead, what emerges is a portrait of a fully human individual, faults included. Perhaps the most important addition that Blight adds to Douglass’s story is his depiction of Douglass’s wife, Anna Murray Douglass. If your only knowledge of Frederick Douglass comes from his autobiographies you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Douglass was ever married. Anna appears but scant little in the autobiographies and this is a real tragedy because the role she played in abolitionism in general and her husband’s life in particular is quite substantial. In terms of abolitionism she was a dedicated member of the Underground Railroad and she also offered domestic support to the Douglass home while her husband engaged in his ceaseless travels of oratory and advocacy in support of the abolitionist cause. Anna is also responsible for her husband’s escape to freedom, providing him money for the escape and clothing purloined from her work as a laundress. He’s lucky to have met her and this luck of his seems to have followed him around, aiding in the building up of his career and success. Certainly Douglass’s industriousness and effort contributed to his success, more so than most things, but the role of good fortune and luck can’t be downplayed when looking at his life. His first lucky break, of course, is that he was taught to read when most others in his situation were not. He also got lucky when his enslaver sent him to Baltimore, a cosmopolitan port city teeming with opportunity, even for its enslaved population. Inexplicably, his enslaver even allowed Douglass to return to Baltimore after failed attempts to runaway. Luck also followed Douglass into freedom where he fell in with supportive members of the abolitionist movement, some of whom acted as financial benefactors for the rest of his life. It is this quintessential American life that we celebrate today, and there are few better ways to celebrate it right now than to read Blight’s new biography. In it you’ll find the complicated and stirring story of a man who is at once easily slighted yet enduringly potent in his determination, a great moral philosopher yet also a potential adulterer, a towering individual of the abolitionist movement yet also but a part of the collective of that movement. With this book Blight achieves what Douglass himself sought after in his bid for freedom: the humanization of a man.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gayla Bassham

    This is not just my favorite book of the year (although I am still in the middle of The Great Believers) but also one of the finest biographies I have ever read. Douglass comes to life in this massive book; I learned so much about his career, but Blight does an equally excellent job with Douglass's complicated relationships with his wife Anna and with the women who became his traveling and work companions while his wife stayed at home (Julia Griffiths, Ottilie Assing, Helen Pitts; after Anna's d This is not just my favorite book of the year (although I am still in the middle of The Great Believers) but also one of the finest biographies I have ever read. Douglass comes to life in this massive book; I learned so much about his career, but Blight does an equally excellent job with Douglass's complicated relationships with his wife Anna and with the women who became his traveling and work companions while his wife stayed at home (Julia Griffiths, Ottilie Assing, Helen Pitts; after Anna's death he married Pitts). Blight in particular shows a great sensitivity when discussing Anna's perspective on the marriage, even including the work of a poet, M. Nzadi Keita, who wrote a series of poems about Anna. (Assing is also portrayed very vividly, if not as sympathetically.) Many of Douglass's quotes about government and race and national polarization will shock you with their timeliness. The closing days of 2018 may have been the very best time to read this book, but I encourage everyone to pick it up as 2019 begins.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This book proves that a lengthy in-depth footnoted biography can be interesting as well as informative. Included are pictures which complement the well-written text. The author tells not only the story of Douglass’s life, but also about the time period in which he lived and people he encountered along the way.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Mueller

    Nothing short of epic and enlightening. Minus one star for the author's overuse of words such as "enthralled," "throngs," and "tempestuous."

  22. 4 out of 5

    Christian

    This book is amazing at the following: (1) describing the big names and their nuanced positions in the Abolitionist movement; (2) Douglass' relationship with U.S. presidents; and (3) detailing the last 1/3 of Douglass' life. But the author's insecurities about Douglass being loved by some 21st century politicians come forward far too often in the book and most of his own personal insights seem either out of place or just plain wrong. I learned a lot, but there has to be better packaging, and I t This book is amazing at the following: (1) describing the big names and their nuanced positions in the Abolitionist movement; (2) Douglass' relationship with U.S. presidents; and (3) detailing the last 1/3 of Douglass' life. But the author's insecurities about Douglass being loved by some 21st century politicians come forward far too often in the book and most of his own personal insights seem either out of place or just plain wrong. I learned a lot, but there has to be better packaging, and I think I'll start with the autobiographies themselves.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Karen Meeus

    This is a very comprehensive and meticulously researched biography of an absolutely fascinating man. This book is a true joy to read for every history buff. Must-read, even. The author brings us an incredibly detailed analysis and thought-provoking insights into Douglass' life and times, and sadly, also shows us that some of the attitudes he struggled against his entire life are still relevant today. This is by no means light reading, but it is oh so very interesting. The reader's full attention This is a very comprehensive and meticulously researched biography of an absolutely fascinating man. This book is a true joy to read for every history buff. Must-read, even. The author brings us an incredibly detailed analysis and thought-provoking insights into Douglass' life and times, and sadly, also shows us that some of the attitudes he struggled against his entire life are still relevant today. This is by no means light reading, but it is oh so very interesting. The reader's full attention is required to keep abreast with the many people important to Douglass and/or the 19th century US & world at large, not to mention all the political strife and machinations of that turbulent era. I very much enjoyed David W. Blight's writing style. He has a real gift for the written word, sounding almost literary at times and creating clear and dramatic scenes in my mind's eye. Very much bringing home the emotional impact of certain key moments in Douglass' life. I really liked that the author doesn't shy away from Douglass' character flaws or less sympathetic moments, not idolizing him, but painting us an objective picture of a great, though not perfect, man. The many quotes from letters, as well as from his autobiographies, especially held my interest and I also loved that the book has so many photographs in it, of Douglass, his family and contemporaries. It's a pity that we have so little information about Anna Murray, Douglass' first wife. More insight into Douglass' feelings for her or Julia Griffiths, Ottilie Assing or Helen Pitts for that matter, would have been wonderful and would have helped us discover more of Douglass the man, be it as a husband or lover, rather than Douglass the public figure. As a European who only just discovered him, I have to admit that I'm left awestruck by the courageous and complex man that was Frederick Douglass.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lesley

    Review first appeared in Booklist. Any biography of Douglass must compete with the ones he wrote himself; passionate memoirs which vividly illustrate the anguish of slavery, and testify to the humanity and intelligence of African Americans. Yet, as David Blight demonstrates in this brilliant and compassionate work, Douglass could never escape the ingrained racism tainting even abolitionist circles. When he disagreed with “Liberator” William Lloyd Garrison’s policy of combating slavery with “suasi Review first appeared in Booklist. Any biography of Douglass must compete with the ones he wrote himself; passionate memoirs which vividly illustrate the anguish of slavery, and testify to the humanity and intelligence of African Americans. Yet, as David Blight demonstrates in this brilliant and compassionate work, Douglass could never escape the ingrained racism tainting even abolitionist circles. When he disagreed with “Liberator” William Lloyd Garrison’s policy of combating slavery with “suasion” as opposed to outright political activism, Garrison suggested that slaves lacked the sophistication to understand the “philosophy” of the antislavery cause. A pained Douglass replied, “Who will doubt hereafter the natural inferiority of the Negro, when the great champion of the Negroes’ rights thus broadly concedes all that is claimed respecting the Negroes’ inferiority…?” (p. 226) In Douglass’s resistance to the paternalism of white abolitionists, we hear premonitions of Martin Luther King’s denunciation of mealy-mouthed white “gradualism”. Douglass’s support for violent resistance against slave catchers and slave owners prefigures the MLK vs Malcolm X polarization of the 60s, as well as contemporary debates over radicalism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Blight’s Douglass is an unapologetic prophet and radical: ‘It is precisely because the prophet engages his society over its most central and fundamental values that he is radical. They are not “reasonable”...they do not abide “compromise” and their role in the world is that of a sacred “extremist”’. (p. 237) The voice of this “sacred extremist” has never been more relevant.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lucas Brandl

    Frederick Douglass was a truly amazing person, and this is a truly amazing story. He was born into slavery, escaped, educated himself, and became probably the most famous/eloquent/influential abolitionist of the Civil War era. A lot of people know those things about him from reading other books or articles that he is mentioned in as part of a broader Civil War history. But what I really liked about this book and devoting so many pages just to his life is that it introduced a lot of other storyli Frederick Douglass was a truly amazing person, and this is a truly amazing story. He was born into slavery, escaped, educated himself, and became probably the most famous/eloquent/influential abolitionist of the Civil War era. A lot of people know those things about him from reading other books or articles that he is mentioned in as part of a broader Civil War history. But what I really liked about this book and devoting so many pages just to his life is that it introduced a lot of other storylines about him that I had never known or thought about before. After he escaped slavery, he was doing speaking tours that were extremely risky. The more famous he got the more likely it was that someone would kidnap him and bring him back into slavery. He eventually had to go to Europe to do speaking there while his freedom with his old slavemaster was negotiated. Even after becoming technically free, he was still at great risk in many of the places he gave speeches. Riots broke out in several places before he was even able to go on stage. His relationship with fame was particularly interesting. The book suggests that he was the most photographed and well traveled person in 19th century America. His speaking tour schedule is exhausting just to sit on a couch and read about. With that level of fame and influence though, there are tradeoffs, and I like that the author didn't attempt to paint a purely admiring portrait of Douglass. He had an immense ego that came with the fame, and a lot of psychological issues that would be almost unavoidable given the way he grew up. He also expressed a lot of views that may not have much approval today. I was surprised to learn about the jockeying for civil rights and equality that happened between Native Americans, African Americans and women. Several times Douglass was very dismissive of the abuse Native Americans had suffered, and he was generally sympathetic to women's suffrage but did get into arguments with some of the leading feminists of the time over whether African American or women's suffrage should come first and who deserved it more. Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. It included some pretty damning quotes from Lincoln, who really wasn't that into the idea of emancipation when the Civil War started. Lincoln's priority at first was to end the war, not to free anyone in existing slavery. He said that "that thunderbolt" would have to wait. He also believed that whether right or wrong, equality between races in America was not achievable, and that the best solution might be allowing African Americans to emigrate to an island country, which Douglass was vigorously against. Some of the best parts of the book are the moments when Douglass has meetings with Lincoln and pushes Lincoln to be more progressive than he previously had been. I also found the depictions of an older aged Douglass to be interesting. He had been doing speaking tours for decades about his experiences growing up in slavery. This is the story people came to hear, but he eventually wanted to talk about something else. He wondered if he would ever move beyond being known as the self educated fugitive slave. In his older age he also became less angry and vicious as he had been in his younger days, and many younger black rights activists accused him of becoming soft. Some also accused him of selling out when he started taking Government posts with later Presidents. As far as the writing of the book itself, I overall enjoyed it. The two things I struggled with were first, the pacing and level of detail in some places seemed off. The second thing is that it frequently referenced Douglass's three autobiographies, and really made me wonder why I was reading this book instead of those. The author's source material for the first twenty years of Douglass's life is almost entirely the three autobiographies, which he refers to over and over and brings up the differences between the three. Ulysses Grant wrote an autobiography. But when I read Ron Chernow's biography of Grant, I never had any doubt that I was reading the best possible book about Grant. With this book, I frequently felt like I would be better off reading the autobiographies.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andy Miller

    This biography does justice to the full life of a remarkable man who was born into slavery, then escaped from slavery, became a leading abolitionist and then after the Civil War a champion for the newly freed slaves against the increasingly repressive backlash against reconstruction. The biography's length allows for a detailed examination of Douglass's life, including the missing detail that haunted Douglas for his entire life, that he never knew his birthdate nor the identity of his white fathe This biography does justice to the full life of a remarkable man who was born into slavery, then escaped from slavery, became a leading abolitionist and then after the Civil War a champion for the newly freed slaves against the increasingly repressive backlash against reconstruction. The biography's length allows for a detailed examination of Douglass's life, including the missing detail that haunted Douglas for his entire life, that he never knew his birthdate nor the identity of his white father. The author, David Blight, relies on Douglass's three different autobiographies for most of the narrative about Douglass's life as a slave, how he was separated from his family at a very early age, his memories of hunger, his constant uprooting resulting from the decisions of different owners, the beatings he received especially from one farmer he was "rented" to by his then owner. Douglas acknowledged the comparative kindness of some of the Aulds, he looked some of the former slave owners up later in life, but always placing that comparative kindness in the context of the evilness of slavery. The pages on his escape from slavery have the suspense of the best novel, but the escape did not lead to an immediate paradise, his vocational opportunities were limited in the North by racial discrimination. It was his telling about his personal experience at an abolitionist meeting that gained attention and led to his speaking and writing experiences that led him to become a leading abolitionist of the day. Douglass became embroiled in the schisms of the abolitionist movement, he at first sided with the Garrison faction whose purity eschewed any political involvement with a government that allowed slavery, when he later joined forces that saw political action as a means to end slavery, he was criticized by his former friends. Blight traces the evolving relationship between Douglass and Lincoln and the new Republican party. including Douglass's disappointments in some of Lincoln's racial attitudes, Douglas strongly opposed the colonization efforts of "returning" Blacks to Africa that Lincoln supported and Douglas yearned for stronger and more proactive steps against slavery, but as times changed, as Lincoln changed, Douglas became Lincoln's ally, campaigning for him and Douglass became a lifelong champion of the Republican party. Though as an example of Blight's thorough research, he includes quotes that show that Douglass's Republican party was very different than today's Republican party, calling for strong federal intervention in state's affairs to ensure the rights of a state's citizens, especially African Americans. The sad years of the destruction of reconstruction are viewed by Douglass's perspectives as the saw state governments taking away rights, especially the right to vote, from newly freed slaves and the weak federal response to increased lynchings that served to intimidate the free Blacks. As with any great biography of a great man, this does not ignore the nuances, complications, and faults in Douglass's life. Blight details Douglass's long absences of both physical travel and lack of mention in his speeches and books about his wife Anna who kept the growing family together. He also discusses the two times that Douglass had close women friends move into the family home for extended periods, Blight does not rush to conclusion but presents the evidence of the relationships and lets the reader decide that those relationships included sexual intimacy and ponder the effect that they had on Anna. The biography describes the complicated issues of Black suffrage and women's suffrage and how Douglass came down on the tension, keeping some friendships with woman's suffragettes while losing some. Blight also discusses the feuds that Douglass had with other Black leaders of his time, sometimes Douglass could seem petty. However, all these discussions show that Douglass was indeed a real man, but a great man who fought slavery while suffering physical assaults and constant discrimination and personal attacks and who continued to champion justice, especially racial justice, for his entire life. Douglass is one of our greatest Americans. This novel does him and his times justice

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ginny

    This is a giant literary biography of a man who deserved one. The book does him justice. If it were not for the epic nature of the author’s undertaking I would have reduced this to four stars, but it is churlish to quibble with the small annoyances I endured when set against the reality that this is a very good book. The writing is solid and not wasteful. The book generally flows well, and, importantly, the author knows the difference between relevant fact and needless fact. This is a book well This is a giant literary biography of a man who deserved one. The book does him justice. If it were not for the epic nature of the author’s undertaking I would have reduced this to four stars, but it is churlish to quibble with the small annoyances I endured when set against the reality that this is a very good book. The writing is solid and not wasteful. The book generally flows well, and, importantly, the author knows the difference between relevant fact and needless fact. This is a book well worth reading. My quibbles are likely more disagreements with conscious decisions this writer made, not editorial mistakes. In reading biographies that no subject exists in a vacuum. So, the author has to decide how much of the surrounding history the author wants to get into. This author decided not to discuss anything that was not directly Douglass. Which is why there is no discussion of Lincoln until right before the war broke out, and little thereafter, until one time Douglass makes an uninvited visit to the White House - the book really shines there. Similarly, little mention of Grant. I could go on. The result is that this author leaves the uninformed reader with a very inaccurate view of history, of context, and of almost anything going on from the 1820’s until the book ends in 1895. The book is, in my opinion, poorer for it. It cannot stand as an historical look at anything other than a myopic view of this one amazing man. Another quibble, my last, I promise, is that the author spent an entire chapter detailing how his off-spring and their spouses were basically underachievers constantly needing Douglass’s help and money - which he generally gave. I wondered why we had to learn all those little family disputes and arguments. And it turns out, I’m not sure we had to. The book ended by quoting from a few articles or sources that claimed Douglass died with a $300,000 estate (which would be a lot of money), and other uninformed sources saying Douglass left his sons $50k each. However, the author never verified any of this, or says he was unable to. Despite this author spending so much time talking about Douglass and money in life, giving to his family and everyone else, he does nothing to explain what happened with Douglass’s estate. If was a very flat ending that opted more for eloquence than information. Some might like that. I was disappointed. I’m now done with the civil war lion of oratory, and on to the Lion of England who saved the world for democracy (!) Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill! Bravo.

  28. 5 out of 5

    David Goldman

    David Blight’s fine biography of Douglas paints the great man in all is strengths and faults. Brilliant, forceful, persistent, Douglas could memorize crowds with his oratory and became the writer of record for the anti-slavery movement. Yet, he could not let the slightest insult go, sought the limelight for himself, and uncompromising. Douglas story often reminded me of Dostoyevski’s “Diary of a Writer” as Douglas was always writing his own story - using every fact and event to weave into his pe David Blight’s fine biography of Douglas paints the great man in all is strengths and faults. Brilliant, forceful, persistent, Douglas could memorize crowds with his oratory and became the writer of record for the anti-slavery movement. Yet, he could not let the slightest insult go, sought the limelight for himself, and uncompromising. Douglas story often reminded me of Dostoyevski’s “Diary of a Writer” as Douglas was always writing his own story - using every fact and event to weave into his personal narrative. The book. serves as an excellent history of the civil rights era and the anti-slavery moment. The book examines the significant racism in the north, the brutality of the south, the pain of the failed reconstruction efforts. The biography is well written and balances well the personal and analysis of Douglas’ evolving political and moral philosophy. There is something about the book that kept if from being awesome, for reasons I can’t quite explain. But the book is interesting and well worth reading. One of the most interesting themes is what tactics are best to make needed social change. The author explores this theme both from the perspective of moral philosophy and practical tactics.  Moral philosophy. When are otherwise moral wrongs justified to promote a moral end? Douglas early dropped is pacifist “moral suasion” philosophy. He embraced politics as change, but also violence and demonizing opponents. He welcomed the civil war and feared a compromise that would lead to an early end to war.  Tactics. Is it better to comprise or insist on complete victor? To take extreme positions that can’t pass or that might even push people away? Or take more compromising positions that may also compromise your standards. Do you demonize even those who largely agree when they are pure (e.g. Lincoln. ). Douglas seemed to be a maximalist. How to you balance preaching hope and patience vs explaining how bad the situation is (so-called jeremiads). Using his incredible powers of persuasion to take the uncompromising positions, but compromising when needed. Pushing friends, but supporting them for office when there was no other choice. Slowly becoming part of the republican establishment, even as he continued to criticize positions he didn’t believe in. 

  29. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    The first handful of chapters that deal with Douglass’ childhood are clumsily written. There's just something hard to follow and inelegant in Blight's writing style. The contrast with Douglass' own eloquence in his autobiographies doesn't help. Neither does Blight's jumping around in time between Douglass' adulthood and childhood. 100 pages in: the sprinkling of incomplete sentences and unclear sentences has continued. I like that Professor Blight calls out Douglass for leaving his wife Anna out The first handful of chapters that deal with Douglass’ childhood are clumsily written. There's just something hard to follow and inelegant in Blight's writing style. The contrast with Douglass' own eloquence in his autobiographies doesn't help. Neither does Blight's jumping around in time between Douglass' adulthood and childhood. 100 pages in: the sprinkling of incomplete sentences and unclear sentences has continued. I like that Professor Blight calls out Douglass for leaving his wife Anna out of his autobiographies. But Blight’s dry writing style has sapped the emotion and urgency from Douglass’ early life that is abundant when you read one of Douglass’ own versions. The back cover of this book has lots of famous historians praising it to the sky, so I’m hoping the writing gets better. 150 pages onward — the material becomes fresher and Blight quotes more often from Douglass’ own voice and writings, thereby making for a much more interesting read. At some point mid-book, I got frustrated with it. This is mostly an intellectual biography, not one in which we get a focus on Douglass’ personal life, personality, or home life. Mostly the book proceeds from one speech to another, Douglass’ written articles, and other public pronouncements. Blight’s style is very dry, (plus odd incomprehensible sentences here and there) and reading this turned into quite a slog despite how much I’d looked forward to it. I think this book would appeal more to someone who is serious about history but really doesn’t know much about Douglass. I had already read most of the public material this book relies on (I have a PhD in U.S. history) so by focusing on Douglass’ public life so heavily, there hasn’t been as much new information for me as I’d hoped. I am guessing that the book’s content focus reflects the available record as well as Blight’s own predilections as a historian. Pages 630-634 we finally get some insight into Douglass’ relationship with his wife Anna. The silence about her was one of the most puzzling aspects of his autobiographies. I found more material that was new to me or that showed Douglass’ personality in the last hundred plus pages of the book. The few reminiscences from his grandchildren, his relationship with second-wife Helen, the photograph of him smiling or the one with his concert violinist grandson, all helped show the softer side of him not depicted elsewhere in the book. Even when his children wrote to him in desperate or unhappy circumstances, it was clear there was a lot of love on their part for him, and I appreciated seeing some hints, finally, of the private man when he was happy. There is plenty in the book at Douglass angry, frustrated, or disappointed in his relatives or friends, but he can’t have been like that all the time for the way his children are quoted writing to him even when they’re most embarrassed to be doing so (asking for money, etc). I would have appreciated in the Epilogue a few paragraphs on what the rest of the lives of Helen and Douglass’ surviving children encapsulated.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jenna Bookish

    While I had of course heard of Frederick Douglass before reading this book, my knowledge of him was spotty at best, consisting mostly of fuzzy, half-remembered elementary school lessons detailing how he cajoled white children into teaching him to read as a young slave. He then went on to become a prominent abolitionist as an adult after escaping slavery. This was the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Douglass.  Blight's biography brings Douglass into sharp focus, not just as a historical f While I had of course heard of Frederick Douglass before reading this book, my knowledge of him was spotty at best, consisting mostly of fuzzy, half-remembered elementary school lessons detailing how he cajoled white children into teaching him to read as a young slave. He then went on to become a prominent abolitionist as an adult after escaping slavery. This was the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Douglass.  Blight's biography brings Douglass into sharp focus, not just as a historical figure, but as a man. The regal looking figure we can see in photos today was once a small boy, treated as property by the Auld family. He was heartbroken when he was emotionally rejected by his mistress, Sophia Auld, who had begun his education before her husband convinced her it was dangerous to educate a slave. He had a granddaughter who liked to braid his hair. His love of music was bordering on the spiritual.  He also, like all of us, had flaws. He may have been unfaithful to his wife. His emphasis on self-reliance was so extreme that it at times felt like a blind spot. He was a self-made man who pulled himself up out of slavery to become a highly influential figure and seemed at times almost disdainful of anyone who couldn't or wouldn't do the same. But that single-minded determination was perhaps his defining trait; he fought for equality quite literally up to his dying day. Douglass had a speaking arrangement scheduled for the evening of his death, before a heart attack took him unexpectedly.  "Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot." Blight's recounting of the life of Frederick Douglass is intensely researched and thorough. It was not quite as readable as other biographies I've read, such as Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton biography, but there's something to be said for valuing substance over style. Reading this was an infinitely valuable education experience, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in American history and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.  

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