nonfiction nuggets…from slave to statesman, the life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass: A Noble Life, by David A. Adler

“Give him a bad master, and he aspires to a good master; give him a good master, and he wishes to become his own master,” wrote Frederick Douglass in his book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Douglass was brutally-well acquainted with a bad master, relieved for a time under a good master, then went on as a free man to become one of the nation’s most influential abolitionists and spokespersons for equal rights. A brilliant orator, bold news journalist, best-selling author, advisor to several U.S. presidents, diplomat to Haiti — at his death it was said of him, “No man started so low and climbed so high as he.”

David Adler, a talented biographer,  has written a riveting account of this extraordinary man.  His description of the brutality experienced by Douglass is searingly painful; the smothering oppression Douglass endured as a man — an intelligent, ambitious man, from whom education, opportunity, and basic human rights were withheld because of the color of his skin — is palpable.

Generously supplied with quotes from Douglass and many others, Adler’s book follows Douglass from master to master until his escape to freedom, followed by his first days of labor for wages that belonged to himself, his enormous influence as a lecturer in America and Europe, and his work on his newspaper, The North Star.  We see the persons and events of the Civil War from Douglass’ vantage point, as well as Douglass’ role in the administrations after Lincoln’s death, including his efforts in the suffrage movements, before his death in 1895 at about 77 years.

Many historical pictures and photos are included, as well as reproductions of pages from several abolitionist newspapers and handbills, all in black and white.  There’s also a timeline of Douglass’ life, and extensive source notes and a bibliography, which I appreciate.  Unfortunately, the pagination in the source notes of my edition was deeply flawed; they are still usable, but it’s an anomaly in an otherwise well-packaged biography.

Adler writes absorbing biographies, and in this, as in others of his I’ve read, he does a fantastic job of sifting through the landslide of information to present an absorbing, highly informative, positive account of his subject.  Douglass had flaws, held views, and acted in ways which might be challenged; in that, he is like every one of us.  I very much appreciate the care in which Adler includes aspects of his subjects which aren’t tidy, without wielding these facts in a skewering fashion.  You will come away from this biography with a deep admiration for Douglass, which is as it should be.

It’s a lengthy biography, about 130 pages long, and with its gritty depictions of slave abuse, and its assumption of some background in the Civil War, I’d peg this one for 6th grade and up.  A highly-recommended choice, which can be followed by a reading of Douglass’ own narrative.

Here’s the Amazon link: Frederick Douglass (Picture Book Biography)