Frederick Douglass: American Lion

Young Douglass2.jpg

I've been utterly absorbed by The Life And Times of Frederick Douglass. The book is the third of Douglass's autobiographies, and for my money the most mature. Douglass is as radical as ever, but there's very little bitterness, and quite a bit of sympathy shown toward his adversaries. The depiction of his relationship with his enslavers is a textbook example of the twisted way in which blacks and whites in the South are family. Black southerners and white southerners were formed here and, especially in the low-lying areas, formed in relation to each other.

But of course, being me, I am a writing fan and Douglass doesn't disappoint on the front. He's a little more lush than Grant, but powerful nonetheless. Below is his description of the plantation where his family was held in bondage:

The close-fisted stinginess that fed the poor slave on coarse corn-meal and tainted meat, that clothed him in crashy tow-linen and hurried him on to toil through the field in all weathers, with wind and rain beating through his tattered garments, and that scarcely gave even the young slave-mother time to nurse her infant in the fence-corner, wholly vanished on approaching the sacred precincts of the "Great House" itself. There the scriptural phrase descriptive of the wealthy found exact illustration. The highly-favored inmates of this mansion were literally arrayed in "purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day." 

The table of this house groaned under the blood-bought luxuries gathered with pains-taking care at home and abroad. Fields, forests, rivers, and seas were made tributary. Immense wealth and its lavish expenditures filled the Great House with all that could please the eye or tempt the taste. Fish, flesh, and fowl were here in profusion. Chickens of all breeds; ducks of all kinds, wild and tame, the common and the huge Muscovite; Guinea fowls, turkeys, geese and pea-fowls; all were fat and fattening for the destined vortex. 

Here the graceful swan, the mongrel, the black-necked wild goose, partridges, quails, pheasants, pigeons and choice waterfowl, with all their strange varieties, were caught in this huge net. Beef, veal, mutton, and venison, of the most select kinds and quality, rolled in bounteous profusion to this grand consumer. The teeming riches of the Chesapeake Bay, its rock perch, drums, crocus, trout, oysters, crabs, and terrapin were drawn hither to adorn the glittering table. The dairy, too, the finest then on the eastern shore of Maryland, supplied by cattle of the best English stock, imported for the express purpose, poured its rich donations of fragrant cheese, golden butter, and delicious cream to heighten the attractions of the gorgeous, unending round of feasting. 

Nor were the fruits of the earth overlooked. The fertile garden, many acres in size, constituting a separate establishment distinct from the common farm, with its scientific gardener direct from Scotland, a Mr. McDermott, and four men under his direction, was not behind, either in the abundance or in the delicacy of its contributions. The tender asparagus, the crispy celery, and the delicate cauliflower, egg plants, beets, lettuce, parsnips, peas, and French beans, early and late; radishes, cantelopes, melons of all kinds; and the fruits of all climes and of every description, from the hardy apples of the north to the lemon and orange of the south, culminated at this point. Here were gathered figs, raisins, almonds, and grapes from Spain, wines and brandies from France, teas of various flavor from China, and rich, aromatic coffee from Java, all conspiring to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety.... 

The hospitality practiced at the Lloyd's would have astonished and charmed many a health-seeking divine or merchant from the north. Viewed from his table, and not from the field, Colonel Lloyd was, indeed, a model of generous hospitality. His house was literally a hotel for weeks, during the summer months. At these times, especially, the air was freighted with the rich fumes of baking, boiling, roasting, and broiling. It was something to me that I could share these odors with the winds, even if the meats themselves were under a more stringent monopoly. 

Viewed from Col. Lloyd's table, who could have said that his slaves were not well clad and well cared for? Who would have said they did not glory in being the slaves of such a master? Who but a fanatic could have seen any cause for sympathy for either master or slave? 

Alas, this immense wealth, this gilded splendor, this profusion of luxury, this exemption from toil. this life of ease, this sea of plenty were not the pearly gates they seemed to a world of happiness and sweet content to be. The poor slave, on his hard pine plank, scantily covered with his thin blanket, slept more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclined upon his downy pillow. Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gormandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.

The ending is really the dagger. Douglass is fully a 19th century man, and a yankee almost in the most stereotypical sense. There's a lot of talk throughout the book of "industry," "improvement," and "labor." He shares the abolitionist sense of the time that slavery destroys the work ethic.

In that final flourish of rhetoric--"food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance"--he really damns his slavers. He sees them as tainted by slavery to the point that it ruins their digestion and sets them to rashness. Slavery is immoderate, to Douglass. There's something ungentlemanly-like about the whole business, something gauche and vulgar.

MORE: I should add that I've found a lot of wisdom in Douglass's description of work as a purifying force. He has a kind of earnestness--in the best sense--that is deeply moving. I don't know how to put this--Douglass is a radical, and belongs to the tradition of radical progressives. But he has a way of speaking to the individual that I think we've lost, or rather, have given away to the type of people who castigate Obama as "food stamp president."

Perhaps it's personal morality that I'm invoking. I can't really imagine a radical progressive, today, saying "Food to the indolent is poison, not sustenance." But I believe that. And not, like, about "other people" who I don't like. I can look back at my own experiences and see the truth in that.