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Douglas, Whitman and their Narratives

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    Frederick Douglass's account of his life in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass epitomized many of the contradictions in American history and society. In many respects, it could be compared to the contradictions and opposites that Walt Whitman revealed about life in his poem "Song of Myself."

    Douglass' description of his experiences under slavery is heartbreaking. The former slave offered firsthand accounts of slave life and its brutality. He described his early childhood memory of seeing his Aunt Hester stripped by her master and tied to a joist, where she was lashed until the cow-skin whip became clotted with blood. He recalled her devastating screams and the impact of the scene. (Douglass) It is simply overwhelming to learn of the experience of this human being, and the suffering he endured, while at the same time knowing that this was happening to a human being in a society that saw itself as a land of equality and liberty.

    Despite the evil and torture that he endured, Douglass was able to survive, and he ultimately became a major protagonist in American developments. He became a great abolitionist and was a player in the American story. American society gave him the freedom and opportunity to do that.

    Douglass showed how his liberation ultimately came through education and reading. (Douglass) He revealed the barbarity of slavery, while at the same time he also showed the hope that the system, unjust as it was, still offered some form of justice. In other words, Douglass was, in a paradoxical sense, liberated by the very system that enslaved him. Thus, Douglass recorded the horrors of slavery while at the same time utilizing certain themes that were embedded in the value-structure of the system that oppressed him. Using experiences from his own life, he constructed stories in which he argued for abolition. He also used references to the Church, God and Christianity to achieve this, since he had never lost hope.

    Whitman's poem "Song of Myself," meanwhile, gives us a another religious, political, and psychological journey. It is not only a poem about "self," but also a poem about a poet who is in the process of discovering and creating himself and his vocation. Thus just like Douglass does in his own narrative, Whitman attempts to find himself in this poem. In both works, we see that life is a curious combination of extremes, which include slavery and freedom, good and evil, and sorrow and joy.

    The first 5 sections of Whitman's poem comprise an opening statement of the poem's vision of the underlying unity in all things, and the last 15 form a conclusion, with the middle 32 sections containing the body of the poem. Within that main body, Whitman discusses everything from people to nature, and examines the positives and negatives in life. We see self-assurance, just as we see doubts. In so many ways, we can see a metaphor to what Douglass was referring to as well: the human condition, and all of the extremes that it embodied. Indeed, even in the system that produced something as evil as slavery, Douglass showed that freedom and self-discovery was possible. He himself was a symbol of it.

    Whitman tries to get the message across that everything in life, from literature and life, the many and the one, the body and soul, and chastity and sexuality, are all parts of a single overall process. In other words, opposites are a reflection of each other, and they are one and the same. It is here that we see the meaning of his poem, for in the "Song of Myself," Whitman is singing to himself in order to sing to his readers. Overall, he is affirming optimism in life, while recognizing and feeling the suffering and tragedy in the human condition. This is, without doubt, exactly the theme of Frederick Douglass's life, who, despite all of the suffering he endured, was able to find exhilaration through freedom and faith.

    "Song of Myself" and Douglass's narrative are both inspirations to the human spirit. Both Whitman and Douglass are talking about their own lives, and we clearly see the contradictions in life, just as we see, in Douglass's story, the contradictions in American history and society. Slavery is obviously part of the pain that Whitman is alluding too, and yet so is the freedom that is its opposite. For more information go to

    Douglass's ultimate liberation became directly linked with the slavery he had endured. This is the phenomenon that Whitman is discussing in his own life, and in life in general, as we see that all things, even if they are contradictory and opposite of each other, are connected. Douglass referred so much to Church, God and Christianity despite all of the evil he endured. And here we see the metaphor to Whitman's poem, where the poet clearly shows that evil and good come together, and they never exist in a vacuum in isolation from one another. In this, both authors touch the core of the mystery in the human condition.


    • Douglass, Frederick. (edited by David Blight) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1993).
    • Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself."

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