I have to confess that rating this book is difficult. Obviously the life of a man born into slavery is a compelling and difficult one, so it’s hard to read. But the real reason that this book is difficult to rate is that the author is writing for those with the power to end slavery – he is effectively convincing the reader of his personhood, and that he needs to is depressing, and creates a remove from his experience.
Some of this might be attributable to the change in writing style over the last 100 + years, but one gets the sense reading that Douglass is couching his experiences to make them more palatable to the moderate position or even to white abolitionists in order to persuade them that slavery is a crime against man and that is just so damn hard for a modern reader to deal with. It’s not enough to say slavery is evil, Douglass has to prove he himself is someone whom evil can be perpetrated against, and that struggle resonates through the book. It’s the narrative of holding back, and that holding back is a loss to history, even if it was a necessary one to end slavery. Douglass couldn’t have made things better for his fellows still trapped in slavery without keeping his story accessible to whites, but he couldn’t tell his full story while trying to persuade them.
This book is a tragedy for what it includes, but it may be a larger one for what it necessarily omitted.