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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, August 01, 2019

Douglass on Brown: The Shape and Limitations of Memory

          The reminiscence of John Brown in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881) seems trustworthy overall, although many have relied upon the narrative without attending to the author’s particular stylizations. For instance, Douglass made much of the austerity of the Old Man’s household that he witnessed upon his first visit with the Browns in Springfield, Massachusetts.  “It would take longer to tell what was not in this house than what was in it,” Douglass wrote.  “Innocent of paint, veneering, varnish, or table-cloth, the table announced itself unmistakably of pine and of the plainest workmanship. . . . The mother, daughters, and sons did the serving, and did it well.”1
            Douglass was generally correct in saying that the Browns led a simple life in many respects.  In fact, the Browns were intentional about conserving money so that it could be shared with the needy.  But in the “tablecloth-less” episode, Douglass was writing many years after the fact and his memory seems to have failed. When Douglass first visited Brown, probably on May 15, 1847, Mary Brown and the younger children had not yet moved to Springfield from Akron, Ohio, where the family still was managing the agricultural interest of Simon Perkins, Jr. Brown had only recently moved into the house that Douglass visited, and his family had not yet joined him, nor had home improvements and d├ęcor been added. Douglass subsequently visited the Brown residences in Springfield and Akron, Ohio, where doubtless he recalled being served by Mary and the Brown children.  But since Mary and the family did not move to Springfield until July 1847, it seems his description was a conflation of memory that nevertheless underscored an essential truth about John Brown—that he was not a man given to materialism or the ostentatiousness of the upwardly mobile.2
            To Douglass’s point, Brown’s eldest daughter, Ruth Brown Thompson, described their home in Springfield as “plainly furnished, but very comfortably.”3  She also recalled that John and Mary Brown wanted to beautify their parlor, but instead chose to buy clothing and supplies for black families from New York State who were settling on the Adirondack lands of abolitionist Gerrit Smith.4  Still, Ruth, who seems to have been the least offended among Brown’s daughters, objected to Douglass’s characterization.5 In a reminiscence written in later life, she observed: “Frederick Douglass has said in his last book that John Brown economized so closely, in order to carry out his plans, that we did not have a cloth on the table at meal times.  I think our good friend is mistaken, for I never sat down to a meal at my Father’s table without a table cloth.  He was very particular about such things.”6
            Douglass stylized other incidents in his narrative of Brown, but likely did so to lessen the tensions of the past and preserve what was most important about his connection to John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Evidently, too, his narrative also was stylized in honor of Shields Green—whom, in a sense, he had given over to the very mission that he himself had refused to undertake.
            In 1881, Douglass wrote his third and final autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, which was revised and updated in 1892.  As David Blight has observed of the work: “It was as though he hoped that telling his story once again, and constantly revising it, might bring symmetry to his life in the present.”7  In fact, Life and Times was “a highly revised version” of his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom.8  Douglass was well acquainted with John Brown by the time that My Bondage and My Freedom was published.  He had even “introduced” Brown to his black readers in the pages of his newspaper, The North Star, in a memorable 1848 description. Brown was “a white gentleman,” Douglass extolled, who was “in sympathy a black man.”9

          Interestingly, though, Douglass apparently omitted even a passing reference to Brown in My Bondage and My Freedom, which was written at the height of their association in the mid-1850s.  Brown’s absence from this work may seem a minor issue, but it is tantalizing for the biographer who knows how close Douglass and Brown had become at this point, including visits, family interaction, and the exchange of mutually edifying sentiments.  The Orator himself recalled later that his relationship with Brown was “friendly and confidential.”10 In the last chapter of My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass updates his life over the previous eight years leading up to 1855, even going to some length to discuss white associates who had distinguished themselves in his eyes by their opposition to color prejudice.11 Considering how he had lauded Brown in the pages of the North Star in the late 1840s, and how he later portrayed him as a close and admired friend in his third autobiography, Brown’s complete absence from My Bondage and My Freedom should not go without notice. Barring the possibility that Brown himself asked Douglass to omit him from mention in his book, it is a curious matter.
            Georges Gusdorf writes that autobiography “is a work of art and at the same time a work of enlightenment; it does not show us the individual seen from outside in his visible actions but the person in his inner privacy, not as he was, not as he is, but as he believes and wishes himself to be and to have been.”12  If this can be applied to Douglass’ third autobiography regarding John Brown, then Life and Times not only brought symmetry to his life as it had become in later years, but also portrayed his antebellum appreciation of Brown as he wished it had been at the time. 
            In fact, it took more than two decades after Brown’s death for Douglass to acknowledge the extent to which the Old Man had challenged his life and thinking. Of course, he had made laudatory speeches about the hero of Harper’s Ferry in the 1860s and ‘70s, praising Brown’s sacrifice and providing insights into the raid.13 But it was not until 1881, with his famous address at Storer College, West Virginia, and the publication of his third autobiography, that Douglass began to acknowledge the extent to which he had been challenged, vexed, and changed by John Brown’s “rigid virtue.”14 It is quite possible, then, that in the 1850s, Douglass actually had mixed feelings about Brown, whom he both loved but also found imposing and irritating in his single-minded determination to take action against slavery—action that Douglass himself was unwilling to take.  In a sense, My Bondage and My Freedom might provide an unspoken commentary on how Douglass sometimes felt about John Brown at the time it was written in the early 1850s, while his Life and Times, written decades after Brown’s death, provides a more sympathetic and retrospective commentary.--LD


         1 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (Hartford: Park Publishing, 1881; rptd., Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983), p. 338.
         2 Compare John Brown to John Brown Jr., May 15, 1847, New York Public Library Collection.  In this letter, Brown informs his son that he is “hourly” anticipating a visit from Douglass; in a letter the following month, Brown encourages his son to marry and take over his responsibilities in Akron, Ohio, so he can bring Mary and the younger children to Springfield.  John Brown to John Brown Jr., June 25, 1847, in John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society Collection; in a letter to his friend and kinsmen, Seth Thompson later that summer, he mentions that had moved Mary and the children to Springfield.  See John Brown to Seth Thompson, Aug. 12, 1847 in John Brown Papers, Woodruff Library Collection, Atlanta University.
            3 "Reminiscences of John Brown, of Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, by Ruth Brown Thompson,” p. 14.  Transcription (ca. 1885), in the Brown Family Papers, Henry Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.
           4 For a description of Brown’s involvement with the black colonists of the Adirondacks, see DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), pp. 165-78.
            5 Anne Brown, daughter of the abolitionist, told Katherine Mayo that “much of what Douglass wrote about [John Brown] was not true, such as the details of their home in Springfield as he described.”  See Mayo’s interview with Anne Brown Adams, Oct. 2-3, 1908, in Frederick Douglass folder, Box 7, John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Collection.
            6 "Reminiscences of John Brown, of Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, by Ruth Brown Thompson,” p. 15.
              7  David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), p. 620.
             8 Ibid., 621.
             9 DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown, pp. 41-42.  Also see Frederick Douglass to "My Dear [William C.] Nell," Feb. 5, 1848, in "Editorial Correspondence," The North Star, Feb. 11, 1848, p. 2.
           10 Douglass adds: “I never passed through Springfield without calling on him, and he never came to Rochester without calling on me.  He often stopped over night with me. . . .”  Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 318.
            11 See Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855.  Edited by William L. Andrews (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987), pp. 245-47.
            12 Georges Gusdorf, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” in James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essay Theoretical and Critical (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 45.
            13 For instance, see his speech at Wakefield, England, on Jan. 15, 1860, in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 5.  Edited by Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1955, 1975), p. 465; Douglass’ letter to James Redpath, Jun. 20, 1860, in Foner, Vol. 5, pp. 467-68; “‘Life and Times of John Brown’: Lecture by Fred. Douglass,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 23, 1874, p. 3; “Lecture by Frederick Douglass in Corinthian Hall Last Evening,” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, N.Y.], -Jan. 27, 1874, p. 4.
            14 Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 282.