Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight
Simon & Schuster
Published: October 2018
David Blight’s “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” was published in 2018 and received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2019. Blight is Professor of American History at Yale University and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. He has written a half-dozen books focused on the Civil War and its aftermath.
Blight’s biography was catalyzed by the author’s lifelong interest in Douglass and his access to a collection of privately-held documents covering the last decades of his subject’s life. What resulted is a weighty, thorough, meticulously thoughtful and incredibly penetrating analysis of Frederick Douglass’s life and times.
Readers expecting a colorful and carefree journey through Douglass’s life are likely to be disappointed, however. This book is far more history than biography and the 764-page narrative demands an uncommon degree of focus and perseverance. Readers hoping to encounter the vibrant scene-setting often found in biographies by McCullough or Chernow will discover that this author’s style is more reminiscent of a relatively concise Robert Caro.
Blight’s account of Douglass’s early life as a slave and his escape to freedom at the age of twenty-one will capture the attention of everyone, however. And throughout this thirty-one chapter epic there are countless gripping moments certain to fascinate, illuminate and enlighten.
Of particular note: accounts of Douglass’s interactions with John Brown (and the aftermath of his raid on Harpers Ferry), insights into Douglass’s perspective on the Civil War as well as his attitude towards Lincoln’s war-time actions and Douglass’s memorable White House encounter with Andrew Johnson. Also noteworthy are Blight’s observations regarding Douglass’s relationships with his wife, Julia Griffiths and a German immigrant-journalist named Ottilie Assing.
But for all that this author was able to uncover as a result of his access to unpublished documents, there is much about Douglass’s personal life – and a non-trivial amount of his public life – that remains a mystery. Blight is careful to note where facts are uncertain, but some readers will grow weary of the narrative’s frequent speculation or heding, often accompanied by caveats such as “probably,” “likely,” and “may have.”
In addition, because Douglass was a prolific public speaker, much of the narrative is devoted to the details of his speaking tours. Over the course of several lecture circuits and countless speeches, these logistical recitations can grow tedious. Finally, for all the charm, heroism and inspiration that pervades Douglass’s story, this book is essentially the carefully reconstructed context of a man and his cause. Only rarely does it feel like the eloquently-told story of an intolerant world as seen through the eyes of an uniquely inspirational person.
As history, David Blight’s “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” is superb; it is comprehensive in scope, exhaustive in detail, scrupulously thoughtful in its analyses and notably revealing of Douglass’s travels and travails. But as a biography it is often underwhelming – dense, dry, inconsistently engaging and frequently exhausting. As a result, as historically meritorious as this book proves to be, readers seeking a colorful, engaging biography are likely to find it disappointing.
Overall rating: 3½ stars