Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks *****

 cloudsplitterThis book is a novel based on what truth is available. The story centers on Owen Brown, the youngest and last living son of John Brown. What I was looking for, of course, was information about John Brown himself. However, because he understood the need for secrecy in his movements, considered himself (and usually really was) a hunted man, he did not leave copious journals. In fact, writing was not one of his talents. What he did care about were the 3 million men, women and children shackled to the plantation system, sometimes literally. He was the only white man recorded in history to have been friends (real friends) with Black people, who understandably were deeply suspicious.

Telling it all through Owen’s eyes is a strong device. Banks is a really good writer, and I think this is my favorite among his published works.

The question that hangs in the air for historians interested in this time period, and in Brown in particular, has always been whether he was sane or a madman (and as a history teacher, I have to say that at least one text mentions him only briefly, and comes down strongly on the side of his being a crazy man).

There is one undeniable fact, whichever side one takes: he was the first white man to kill and die for Black men. At that time, and for a long time after, his name carried great respect among Black men and women in the U.S. I am inclined to agree with them.

In these modern times, we know that it is possible to be mentally ill, and yet not be unable to function. I’m willing to bet that most families, if you trace the lines hard and long enough, will have at least one such person. And reading this novel convinced me that this was the case with John Brown.

Owen’s life was not an attractive one. At times, it appeared that their father had deserted the family; he would go away on one religious/political (for Brown, they were inseparable) mission or another, and not come back for years. There were times that the children of the family nearly starved to death, and their lives were not only desperately poor, but beset by constant danger. The stress alone might be enough to unhinge almost anyone.

I think I should leave the story as Banks tells it to the reader. His prose is brilliant and compelling. This is a very long book, but I finished it pretty quickly, because I couldn’t leave this family in danger until I had seen the very end. Banks brings characters alive in a way few writers do. I was a member of the Brown family until the book was over; their struggle became mine, and each poor decision made me flinch and my stomach felt leaden. Doom!

It also left me with the question we can never answer: what if Brown had waited another (roughly) ten years to lead the revolt? Might he have met with greater success?

If you like seeing characters developed well and also like historical fiction when it is done well, this book is terrific. (It is also very large, and heavy. If you have a nook or Kindle and it is available, consider reading it that way).