Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglass

Intention:  The intention of this piece is to tell Douglass’ story of how he came to learn how to read and write.  The piece tells of the troubles and repercussions that reading and writing bestowed on Douglass.

Style:  Douglass’ essay has a simplistic style.  His sentences are very direct and to the point; it is not difficult to decipher what he is trying to say.  For example, he begins his essay with, “I lived in Master Hugh’s family about seven years.  During this time, I succeeded in learning to read and write,” (260).  These are fairly short sentences, each one getting straight to his point.  Douglass does not include over-the-top imagery and descriptions, but he includes just enough to allow the reader to picture what he was experiencing.  He describes his mistress as “pious, warm, and tender hearted,” (260).  This description aligns with his direct and simple style, but offers enough information to allow the reader to picture what type of woman this mistress was.  Douglass uses elevated diction throughout his essay, which surprised me, considering he was a former slave.  He uses words such as “pious”, “discontentment”, “treacherous”, and “thus”.  These words help show just how educated Douglass truly was.  I really enjoyed the style of this essay; it was simple and easy to understand, but also showed that Douglass was an educated man.

Quote:  “In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity,” (262).  This quote was surprising to me.  I always imagined that every slave would want to know how to read and write, and did not think that this could be a negative thing.  This quote made me think differently about slaves and the emotions that they must have been feeling.  Douglass uses powerful words in this quote, such as ‘agony’ and ‘envied’.  For him to envy the other slaves for their lack of knowledge is extremely powerful; people should strive for knowledge, not for stupidity.  He clearly expresses the pain and burden that literacy has brought upon him.  I learned that literacy allowed slaves to view their “wretched condition, without the remedy,” (262).  Literacy revealed to Douglass just how horrible his condition was.  Knowledge is power, and in this case, caused immense pain for Douglass.  Pathos is present in this quote as well.  His powerful words reveal his pain and cause the reader to feel sorry for him.  This quote supports the intention of the piece; it reveals the troubles and burdens that reading and writing placed upon Douglass.

Arrangement:  This essay is told through a series of stories about Douglass’ life.  It goes in chronological order; the story begins with him having a desire to read, and ends with him learning how to write.  Douglass takes his audience through the events that helped teach him how to read and write.  He started out with looking at his master’s newspaper, then he made friends with the white boys and learned from them, next he started reading books, and finally he found a way to learn how to write.  Douglass mentions at the end of his essay that he would meet with boys that he knew could write, and have writing competitions with them.  He would also copy what his master had written, and tells his audience, “Thus, after a long, tedious effort for years, I finally succeeded in learning how to write,” (264).  Douglass’ knowledge progresses throughout time, and as he becomes more educated, the audience sees him becoming more troubled with his current situation.  By writing this essay in the form of a story, Douglass effectively connects the reader to his life and takes them on the journey that he was experiencing.

–Vanessa Petranek

Douglass makes use of a paradox when he is discussing what learning to read and write provided for him. He calls it a blessing and a curse. He says that learning to read and write was a blessing because he was able to  learn about the world around him and what it really meant to be a slave. He was able to learn more about the abolitionist movement and if there was any progress towards freeing slaves. In his essay Douglass says, “The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery…” (262). In the same paragraph Douglass reveals to the reader how reading was also a curse for him. He realized how truly powerless he was and in the end he was still only a slave. The ability to read did not change the fact that he was still destined to be a slave for life. To explain the anger he felt Douglass says, “…I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched conditions, without the remedy.” (Douglass 262). Reading allowed him to see the problems that were going on in the world, but it did not give him the capability to do something about it.

Douglass starts off this essay with an anecdote about the family he served when he was a young boy. The anecdote goes on to talk about how his mistress started to teach him how to read. This anecdote is so strong because it shows us Douglass’ first encounter with a book. It starts his journey on learning how to read and write. Throughout the rest of the essay, Douglass tells stories of his childhood. One of the stories was how he use to trick the little white boys to teach him how to write. Douglass would bet them that he could write as well as they could. He then would learn how to write the different letters by imitating the boys. All of these little stories makes his essay stronger and makes the audience feel connected to him.

Douglass has ethos because he is one of the most well known black abolitionists. He is known for his work with the abolitionist and for all of his different writing. He has several other famous works one of those being, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” He also has ethos because he was a slave for many years so the prejudice he experienced was first hand. All of his writing are first hand accounts of what he experienced as a slave which gives him an immense amount of credibility.

–Megan Ross

Douglass opens his essay by describing his mistress, who used to teach him to read and write, but then “not only ceased to instruct [him], but had set her face against [his] being instructed by any one else” (260). Douglass writes, “It is due, however, to my mistress to say of her, that she did not adopt this course of treatment immediately. She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute” (260). With this, Douglass contrasts his learning to read and write with her “learning” to treat him as a slave – before, she had treated him as “she supposed one human being ought to treat another” (260), but under the influence of her husband and after gaining experience as a slaveholder, she became cruel to Douglass. Douglass drives his point home with the strong words he uses, such as “depravity,” “mental darkness,” “irresponsible power,” and “brute.”

Between anecdotes, Douglass writes, “I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart” (261) At this point, the essay shifts in tone to describe the burden of Douglass’ literacy. This sentence in particular is important because it is terrifying. We learn about the adult lives of slaves but forget that they were children, and this knowledge that one’s life truly has no prospects is enough to destroy one’s childhood.

Douglass describes how his hope for freedom burdened him: “Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm” (263). This quote is beautiful but melancholy. It describes the steadfastness of Douglass’ hope, which is positive, but also negative because its persistence is torturous to him, since this is a hope he feels he can never attain. Douglass’ repeated use of parallelism in this quote dramatizes and emphasizes his point.

–Sophia Dahlquist


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