We were still living in the USA in 1993, the year I’m revisiting for this month’s re-reading exercise. It was a year when, according to my records, I read 24 books. What kind of thing did I favour? With only two representatives from British fiction in the list (Michael Frayn’s Now You Know and Julian Barnes’s The Porcupine), North American fiction and non-fiction seemed to predominate. There was a scattering of what might be called reportage: it ranged from Susan Orlean’s Saturday Night (a fun and enlightening read, as I recall), via David Simon’s Homicide (which of course was the basis for that great TV series of the later 1990s) to a collection of A.J. Liebling’s old journalism. My US and Canadian fiction reading included both old classics – As I Lay Dying, Native Son and Huckleberry Finn – and fairly new stuff by Ellen Gilchrist, John Steffler and Carol Shields.
But, as with last month, I’ve gone for something that wasn’t in my list but that I almost certainly read in 1993 – the best evidence being that inside my (second-hand) copy was an April 1993 concert ticket that had been used as a bookmark. It’s quite a small book, but one that had a big impact in its time: to give its full title, it’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. For those who don’t know, it’s the self-penned autobiography, first published in 1845, of Frederick Douglass, born into slavery in the American South. It was written just a few years after he escaped from Maryland, after which he had become something of a star speaker for the abolitionist cause and contributor to anti-slavery journals. (For a useful introduction, Radio 4’s In Our Time had a good discussion about Douglass back in February: it’s still available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09qb0kc)
Although it can be nice to live in the USA – for the most part we enjoyed living in Boston for three-and-a-bit years – any thinking person living there can’t help but be aware of the two great crimes on which the country is founded. These are the transatlantic slave trade and the almost total elimination of the native American. I can’t say I read much about the latter, but on the former Douglass (who I don’t think I’d heard of before coming to America) was an enlightening eye-witness. Also in 1993, as it happens, I interviewed the writer Charles R. Johnson (previewing his visit to the university I was working for) and must have at least skimmed through his novel Middle Passage, a historical slave-ship novel. And back at Manchester University Clever Daughter no. 1 was reading English and American literature and had asked me to find her copies of writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer for one of her courses. So books about the African-American experience were in the air, as it were.
Anyway, what struck me on re-reading Douglass’s Narrative was its sheer readability, not something one necessarily expects in a book published over 170 years ago. If we accept that he was born in 1818 (he himself wrote that “I have no accurate knowledge of my age”), Douglass was just 27 when the Narrative was published; for a young man who had by his own account taught himself to read at the age of eight this was quite an achievement. As is the rhetorical force of his language:
The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. (Ch II)
On the one hand, there stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, — its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light of the north star … stood a doubtful freedom – half frozen – beckoning us to come and share its hospitality. (Ch X)
At other times he can be less high-flown, plainly narrating the bloody brutalities of slave-masters, traders and others involved in maintaining the American South’s slave system:
Mr Thomas Lanman, of St Michael’s, killed two slaves, one of whom he killed with a hatchet, by knocking his brains out. He used to boast of the commission of the awful and bloody deed. (Ch IV)
Douglass is also scathing about Christianity – “I assert most unhesitatingly that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid of crimes, – a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, – a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds” (Ch X) – to the extent that in an “Appendix” he felt the need to defend himself against the supposition that he might be “an opponent of all religion”, contrasting the “plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” with “the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ”.
The Narrative‘s only disappointment – if that’s how it can be described – is the lack of any information about his escape out of the south to New York. But Douglass explains that “what means I adopted [to reach the north] … I must leave unexplained” so that other escaping slaves could, in the years before abolition, use the same methods. Or as he puts it more poetically: “I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. … Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother” (Ch XI). Much later, in his Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892) he feels free to explain that by “borrowing” the papers of a “freeman of color” resident in Maryland he was able to impersonate his benefactor on his journey north by boat and train. (I found this in The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader  – recommended for further reading – that includes extracts from his other books, and some speeches, including a remarkable 1853 one in favour of women’s suffrage.)
Needless to say, there are present-day resonances to all this, which I don’t really have the space to expand on here. But all in all I’m glad I revisited Frederick Douglass.
What I also read in May: two novels – Muriel Spark’s The Only Problem (bizarre plot, redeemed by Spark’s style) and the really good All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski; plus The Little Karoo, a collection of bleak short stories from the 1920s by Pauline Smith, a protege of Arnold Bennett; and the invaluable A Short History of Truth by Julian Baggini.