Selected Criticism

Douglass, Frederick (1818–1895)
Higgins, Andrew C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Orator, writer, newspaper editor, and activist, Frederick Douglass was born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland. He learned to read at age nine while working for his owner's brother in Maryland, and then escaped in 1838 to the North, where he became active in the abolitionist movement, working with people like William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass soon became a popular figure on the abolitionist circuit, telling his story of his experiences in and escape from slavery. In 1845 Douglass published The Narrative of the Life of a Slave, the first of three autobiographies he would write in his life.

In 1847 Douglass began his own newspaper, The North Star, in part because of his belief that blacks should take leadership roles in the abolitionist movement. He was a speaker at the 1848 Free Soil party convention in Buffalo, where Whitman, who was participating as a delegate from Brooklyn, heard him speak. Years later, writing for the Brooklyn Daily Times, Whitman would praise Douglass's voice as "loud, clear and sonorous" (qtd. in Reynolds 123).

From the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass campaigned ceaselessly to frame the war as a struggle against slavery. In 1876 he became the first African American appointed to a government post that required Senate approval when Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him United States marshal of the District of Columbia, and he later went on to become minister to Haiti.

Though he never met Whitman, Douglass offers a number of interesting parallels to the poet. Both men spent the main portion of their literary careers rewriting one book, both men were passionately involved in politics, and for both men the Civil War was a watershed event that required them to rethink their approach to life, literature, and politics.


Andrews, William L., ed. Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass. Boston: Hall, 1991.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Writing of Frederick Douglass. Ed. Philip S. Foner. 5 vols. New York: International, 1950–1955.

———. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.

McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.


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