Thursday, December 31, 2009

Narrative of the Life of an American Slave

In the previous two posts the popular American redemptive narrative, or recovery plot, was mentioned, and the slave narrative was cited as one example. Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of an American Slave is probably the best known, most popular, and classic type of the slave narrative.

By the time it was published (1845), the conventional formulaic structure was well established: moving from an account of life in slavery to a turning point of escape, rescue or manumission and then to an account of life in freedom. Douglass follows this pattern and includes almost all the elements of the slave narrative formula: his birth in slavery; obscure parentage; bleak conditions of food, clothing, shelter, work; cruel overseer, whippings, becoming sensitive to suffering; learning to read and write; developing a special sense of destiny; brutality of Christian slave owners; rebelling against cruel treatment; failed escape attempts; successful escape; new home and identity; reflections on slavery. (

What distinguishes Douglass' Narrative from others of its type is the clarity and effectiveness of its style. While there are a couple of places where rhetorical flourishes seem excessive, for the most part the style is understated, matter-of-fact, and transparent.

Appropriate to his primary abolitionist purpose, Douglass crafts a style that is broadly appealing and accessible to a mass audience. He projects the persona of an intelligent, practical man who is sensitive to the suffering of his fellow slaves, yet tough enough to fight back when necessary and smart enough to deceive his captors in order to learn how to read and write and ultimately to plan and execute his own escape.

Some of his white mentors in the anti-slavery movement thought his autobiography would be more credible if it were written in a "plantation" style using slave vernacular, but Douglass insisted on demonstrating his literacy and self-education by aiming at a middle range between the colloquial and the high-flown. In some ways, he anticipates the realistic, journalistic style that came to dominate post-Civil War American literature.

While there are moments of melodrama, for the most part Douglass tells his story in a straightforward, factual, down-to-earth manner, establishing his credibility through a literate, direct, and confident voice. He successfully appropriates Christian symbolism and Biblical language to construct a devastating critique of the hypocritical religous underpinnings of the institution of slavery.

For the most part his tone is either neutral or directly denunciatory of slavery, but he sometimes takes a sentimental turn, sometimes an ironic one. Lest any reader be inclined to view his occasional sentimentalism as somehow weak, he uses the opening chapter to satirically address the oft-cited passage of Genesis 9:20-27, the story of Noah cursing Ham to a life of bondage, regularly used as Biblical justification for slavery: "If the lineal descendents of Ham are alone to be scriptually enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters." Such ironic touches effectively display a toughness of tone as well as of argument.

Perhaps the ultimate irony and most brilliant rhetorical stroke is Douglass' implicit dramatization of himself as the quintessential American type--the self-made man, the "rugged individualist"-- the personification of Emersonian self-reliance. While Douglass acknowledges his bonds of friendship with other slaves and the help he received from others in his escape, what emerges most strongly is the profile of a man who acts independently to liberate himself from oppression. By presenting himself in these terms, Douglass' makes a powerful argument that a black slave is as much an American as the pioneer, the entrepreneur, or the original settlers throwing off the yoke of European oppression.

Without a doubt, Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of an American Slave is one of the most remarkable works of political rhetoric to have been produced in all of American literature.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Danish Girl

Americans love the redemptive narrative, the recovery plot (see previous post), and throughout our history it has taken many forms: spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative, slave narrative, economic success story, courtship romance, "coming of age," medical/psychological recovery. All of these genres involve the struggle with obstacles, redemption from suffering, and the attainment of salvation, freedom, fame and fortune, romantic love, maturity, and/or recovery from dis-ease, either physical or psychological or both.

A contemporary sub-set of the physical/psychological recovery plot is the story of the transexual, who undergoes physical, psychological, and social transformation to redeem him/herself from the bondage of a body and a gender role that do not fit and to achieve a sense of wholeness and authenticity in a new body and new gender identity.The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff (2000) is a recent fictional version of an experience that has been recounted in transexual autobiographies from Jan Morris' Conundrum (1974) to Jennifer Boylan's She's Not There (2003). In this work of fiction Ebershoff imagines his way into the life of Danish painter Einer Wegener, who underwent the first surgical sex change in Dresden in 1931 to become Lili Elbe, all with the help and support of his/her wife Greta Waud.

What strikes me as remarkable about this novel is the way in which it represents the transexual journey as a biological experience. Obviously, it is a psychological and social experience as well, and the novel portrays it as such. But more than any other account I have read, in this novel the body of Einer/Lili is almost a part of the setting of the narrative. Einer/Lili's body is like a stage on which the transexual drama is acted out. Ebershoff captures the biological, as well as the psychological and social, suffering of Einer/Lili, and explores the erotic dimension of the experience more than any other author I have read. One has the sense that Lili's physical survival depends upon a successful transformation from a male to a female body.

Lili's redemption and liberation from this suffering comes by way of three separate surgeries, during which it is discovered that she has ovaries. The last surgery involves a uterine transplant to make it
possible for her to become pregnant. Ironically, the novel ends with the ominous foreshadowing of Lili's death. The historical Einer/Lili did in fact die about three months after the third surgery, possibly from transplant rejection. Thus this redemptive narrative becomes a tragic one. Lili literally risks her life to save herself, and while her redemption is real, it also ironically leads to her death.

The novel also challenges the popular postmodern view of gender as a social construction rather than an essential part of one's identity. While in one sense Einer/Lili serves as an example of the fluidity and indeterminacy of gender identity, in another she/he dramatizes its essential psychological and biological reality, experienced by Einer/Lili as a necessity which cannot be denied.

One of the doctors that Greta consults tells her about one of his early cases of male to female surgery: "Who would think it possible" he says, "going from man to woman? Who would risk his career to try something that sounds like something from a myth?" On the next page, in a book on gender ambiguity, Einer/Lili reads the myth of Hermes and Aphrodite, whose union produced Hermaphroditus, an intersex character. And, indeed, the transgender character in literature can perhaps be traced back to the metamorphoses and shape-shifting of ancient mythology.

As Greta ponders Einer/Lili's plight, she thinks of him/her as being "on a perpetual track of transformation, as if these changes...would never cease, would lead to no end. And when she thought about it, who wasn't always changing? Wasn't everyone always turning into someone
new?" For Greta, Einer/Lili was just a more extreme and dramatic version of all of us.