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Frederick Douglass’s Digressions

March 16, 2017

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In the tenth chapter of his Narrative of the Life (1845) Frederick Douglass rages against the hypocrisy of Christians slaveholders in a rant he identifies as a digression:

My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s–all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing.

The meta-commentary of the last sentence punctuates the tone of the preceding and implicitly begs forgiveness for “again digressing” from the reader as though digression were a repeat offense. But neither the term “digress” nor its variants appear “again” in Narrative. The earlier offense has gone without comment—although Douglass mentions a more venial adjustment of rhetorical course earlier in the chapter when he pauses to include the phrase—“But to return to Mr. Freeland, and to my experience” (79).

The phrase implies another subtle rhetorical apology—this time for relaying potentially superfluous testimonials about pious Mr. Hopkins, who always found a way “to justify the use of the lash” (79). Like the paradoxical singularity of Douglass’s admission of “again digressing,” this instance is one of the only in Douglass’s Narrative to evince retrophobic dilation (“But to return”)

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In closing, I want to return to the curious wording Douglass uses in his Chapter Ten, where he mentions “again digressing” for it is in relation to this predicament that we ask one of the most important questions for anyone studying digression. What exactly is Douglass digressing from in this moment? A digression can only be defined as such in the face of an established unity. What is that unity in Douglass’s case?

Douglass provides us with a miniature narrative of conflict encountered and straightforwardly resolved at the beginning of Chapter Ten when he tells of a time he got his oxen caught in a thicket:

There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me. My cart was upset and shattered, my oxen were entangled among the young trees, and there was none to help me. After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart.

The anecdote does more than create immediacy or heighten tension: it nutshells the narrative ideal—the kernel of conflict—from which the rest of the chapter digresses.

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Douglass will eventually get his “cart righted,” but not without trying every possible means to extricate himself from the thicket he find himself in with Covey (the influence of white relations, Sandy’s superstitious root, etc.).

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We should not forget that this is also the chapter in which Douglass famously stirs readers to expect an “epochal” change in his protagonist, thus fomenting the readerly anticipation required for digression to be regarded as such:

“The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (65-6).

If we expect an image, something to see, we are soon disappointed. Nothing so immediately apprehensible or so straightforward follows. Rather, a circuitous story of rising tension follows, punctuated, one assumes for purposes of rhetorical effect, by faux admissions to excesses, which are themselves intensifiers of anticipation.

Nothing about Douglass’s self-identified moments of “digressing” in the tenth chapter, in other words, digress at all. They build towards a larger narrative that still bears metaphorical resemblance with the ideal story of the oxen cart caught and released from the woods. Douglass’s digressions are not subtractive but additive. They build story rather than delay or disrupt it.

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For more, see my essay: “Digression, Slavery, and Failing to Return in the Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke.” From: Biography Volume 39, Number 4, Fall 2016  pp. 511-534

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