This essay argues that in his autobiographies, journalism, and speeches, Frederick Douglass carved out a new version of humanism that broke with both the liberalism individualism of Jacksonian America and the anachronistic civic republicanism espoused by white abolitionists. In addition to theorizing this new humanism, which would be based in a politics of interpersonal difference rather than in the assumption of human universals, Douglass practiced a form of cautious self-presentation that underwrote his politics. His tendency to draw a veil across certain pivotal scenes of intimate violence; his mode of address to his former “master”; his attention to the collapse of the line separating public from private life in the South—all of these contributed to Douglass's refiguring of the relationship between his authorial and oratorical personae and his audiences. Douglass does not simply exploit sympathy's strategies for traversing the boundary separating self from other. He constructs a forcefully human persona—an opaque persona whose opacity is its attraction—that anticipates Hannah Arendt's arguments in The Human Condition. In this respect, Douglass's new liberal individual stands at the head of a literary and intellectual tradition that extends through African American writing and into the present moment.
Lloyd Pratt; Human beyond Understanding: Frederick Douglass's New Liberal Individual. Novel 1 May 2010; 43 (1): 47–52. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-061
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