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Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
The Heroic Slave. From Autographs for Freedom, Ed. Julia Griffiths
Boston: John P. Jewett and Company. Cleveland, Ohio: Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington. London: Low and Company., 1853.


Frederick Douglass is one of the most celebrated writers in the African American literary tradition. Throughout his life, he worked to advance the twin causes of abolition and racial equality in the United States. Douglass won early renown as a fugitive slave on the abolitionist lecture circuit, and the 1845 publication of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave extended his fame throughout the U.S. and beyond. After his Narrative was published, Douglass traveled and lectured throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Abolitionists in England purchased his freedom in 1846. Upon his return to the United States, Douglass officially parted ways with William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society and began to publish a series of abolitionist newspapers. He went on to serve as an advisor to several U.S. Presidents, a city council member and U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia, President of the Freedman's Bank for former slaves, and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti. He published four versions of his autobiography: the 1845 Narrative; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881); and an expanded version of Life and Times (1892). At the end of his final autobiography, Douglass looked back favorably on his life's work, concluding that "although it has at times been dark and stormy, and I have met with hardships from which other men have been exempted, yet my life has in many respects been remarkably full of sunshine and joy" (p. 752).

Douglass's only published work of fiction, The Heroic Slave appeared in 1853, and its protagonists and plot are loosely based on actual people and events. In 1841, a slave ship named Creole was hijacked when the 135 slaves on board broke free from their shackles, overwhelmed the ship's white crew, and demanded to be transported to the Bahamas. Once in Nassau, they were allowed to go free by the British soldiers guarding the port, except for the nineteen leaders of the mutiny. As U.S. historian Junius Rodriguez explains, the mutiny aboard the Creole succeeded due to "a combination of maritime skills, information circulated by other slaves about slavery resistance, and knowledge of the region in which they lived" (p. 144). First published in the self-edited Frederick Douglass's Paper, the novella was also included in the 1853 gift-book Autographs for Freedom, edited by Julia W. Griffith (Foner 247). Focusing on the life of Madison Washington, the text bears strong parallels to Douglass's own Narrative, published eight years previously, as well as Douglass's numerous addresses on the abolitionist lecture circuit. Indeed, the novella restages the rhetorical performance of an abolitionist lecture by describing major events through a series of dramatic monologues, especially noting the varied responses of each speaker's audience.

The Heroic Slave is divided into four parts. In part one, Madison Washington speaks his grievances aloud in a "dark pine forest" somewhere in Virginia, and a "northern traveller" named Mr. Listwell overhears his monologue, though Washington does not realize that he is listening (pp. 176-181). In part two, Washington has escaped from slavery, and he arrives at the Listwells' Ohio home as a fugitive slave, through a convenient twist of fate. Mr. Listwell reassures Washington "you are safe under my roof" (p. 185); Washington relates his story; and Listwell helps him escape to Canada (pp. 187-204). In part three, Listwell encounters Washington in a slave gang, and Washington explains how he was recaptured while attempting to rescue his wife from slavery in Virginia (pp. 216-221). Listwell conspires to slip three files into Washington's pockets in order to free himself from his shackles (p. 223). In part four, the former first mate of the Creole narrates the story of the slave mutiny to a white audience in a Richmond tavern, explaining his newfound belief that "this whole slave-trading business is a disgrace and scandal to Old Virginia" (p. 230). The text concludes by relating the heroic reception the fugitive slaves received in Nassau and comparing the motives of the mutineers to "the principles of 1776" (p. 238).

Douglass's novella has often been compared to other accounts of mutinies at sea, including Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1846), Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855) and Billy Budd (1924), Charles R. Johnson's Middle Passage (1990), and Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997). Though all of these narratives demonstrate the unwillingness of enslaved Africans and conscripted whites to submit willingly to bondage, Douglass's text also emphasizes the possibility of changing white attitudes about slavery. Therefore, The Heroic Slave might be said to stage the perfect audience for the abolitionist messages of Douglass and other critics of American slavery. The text invites the reader to emulate the aptly-named Mr. Listwell—to "listen well" to its message and to carry out its mission. Listwell's resolution to stand against slavery demonstrates Douglass's belief that empathetic identification based on words alone might lead to political action and social change.

Works Consulted: Douglass, Frederick, Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New York: Penguin Books, 1996; Foner, Philip S., Ed., Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, abridged and adapted by Yuval Taylor, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999; Hendrick, George & Willene, eds, Introduction, Two Slave Rebellions at Sea, St. James, NY: Brandywine P, 2000; Rodriguez, Junius P., Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Vol. 1, New York: Greenwood P, 2007.

Patrick E. Horn

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