Analysis: Preface by William Lloyd Garrison & Letter from Wendell Phillips

Slave narratives often begin with prefaces, written by white editors, that attempt to prepare white audiences for the narrative itself. Such prefaces usually testify to the authenticity of the narrative—the truth of its facts and the credibility of its black authorship. Because the editors position themselves as authorities on the narratives, the prefaces implicitly place black narratives under the control of white editors. Garrison’s preface in particular displays the urge to control and contain Douglass’s career and narrative. Garrison places himself at the center of the text. Douglass’s success story is replaced somewhat by the story of Garrison’s judgment and fostering of Douglass’s talent. Thus when Garrison recalls Douglass’s first speech at the Nantucket antislavery meeting, he does not reproduce any of Douglass’s words. Instead, he expounds on his own small speech after Douglass’s. Garrison’s speech champions Douglass’s abilities, but it also assumes the right to pass judgment on the quality of Douglass’s speech. Garrison controls and contains Douglass’s speech by placing it in comparison to historical references familiar to white audiences—the context of the American revolutionaries.

Garrison’s and Phillips’s prefaces also present Douglass’s Narrative as a contribution to the political and philosophical argument against slavery. Both prefaces contain political arguments in favor of abolition and refutations of pro-slavery arguments. For instance, both men specifically address critics who insist that the violence of slavery is exaggerated and that stories like Douglass’s are uncommon. Phillips and Garrison each point out that Douglass had a relatively mild experience of slavery in Maryland, one of the less isolated and harsh slave states. Similarly, Garrison addresses those who argue that it is natural that Negroes be kept as slaves because they are naturally inferior. To refute this, Garrison cites the case of the white man who experienced significant mental deterioration when kept as a slave in Africa for three years. Garrison also points to Douglass as a specimen of superior manhood, offering up Douglass’s refinement of feeling, complexity of thought, oratorical genius, and even his commanding physical presence as evidence to contradict the claim that Negro race is inferior.

Garrison suggests that Douglass’s Narrative is powerful because it offers such a drastic double picture—the articulate, familiar, enlightened Douglass presents and interprets his unenlightened, oppressed self under slavery. This duality of the protagonist is common to the genre of autobiography. In autobiography, a necessary disparity exists between the author as teller and the author’s younger self. The disparity between these two selves in Douglass’s case is particularly extreme because his story is not simply about a young man maturing but a young man escaping the oppression of slavery and becoming educated. Garrison presents the huge disparity between Douglass the author and Douglass the slave as evidence of the unnaturalness of slavery.

Garrison hints at another doubleness in Douglass’s Narrative—the fact that the Narrative is a story about Douglass’s specific and personal life and experiences, but is also meant to stand politically as the experience of most slaves. Though Garrison acknowledges Douglass’s unique abilities, Garrison also recognizes the necessity of reading the Narrative as a representative depiction of any soul under slavery. In his preface, Garrison implies this substitution of Douglass for all slaves. Garrison’s appeal to the Nantucket crowd to protect Douglass is, then, an implicit appeal to protect all fugi-tive slaves and to work against the institution of slavery in general.

Both Garrison’s and Phillips’s prefaces suggest that the literary merit of Douglass’s Narrative lies in its ability to move readers, sometimes to tears. Nineteenth-century readers commonly admired deep feeling and pathos, and sentimentalism was a popular literary and rhetorical genre. Sentimental fiction and oration sought to motivate readers and listeners to political action through sympathy with those suffering under oppression. Readers and writers valued emotional displays of weeping as evidence of earnest and intricate emotional awareness. Many believed that this emotional awareness was a necessary component of intellectual reason. Though sections of Garrison’s and Douglass’s prose may seem trite or teary to us today, they would have originally been evidence of genuine and moral feeling at the time in which the Narrative was written.