Frederick Douglass and the Canon

February 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm (Multicultural Lit)

One of the  questions that occurred to me as I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography this time around, particularly in relation to Michele Wallace’s article on visual culture, modernism and postmodernism, was to wonder why this book is so much a part of the contemporary canon. There are other books that tell similar stories, and that are also assigned in similar contexts (Equiano and Harriet Jacob’s autobiographies both come to mind here), but neither is as pervasive as Douglass, who seems to have become the academic voice of slavery. In some ways I find this troubling, because as Ann pointed out in her post on Garrison’s Preface, Douglass proves his worth by speaking in a way that was impressive to white abolitionists and is still impressive to the academic elite today. I would like to think that this isn’t the only reason Douglass is so widely canonized today, but the only other book that seems to be close to being assigned as much as his is, Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography is certainly far less formally refined.

I also wonder if Douglass is so throughly canonized through sheer inertia. He stands for the American slavery experience, so we don’t need to look any further. By including this already safely canonized book in high school and undergraduate curricula, teachers don’t have to risk rocking the boat and reaching outside a predefined idea of what the experience of American slavery is. I would like to think better of us as a culture, but unfortunately, I don’t have any faith that this is true.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: