The best books on the life of Frederick Douglass

Laurence Fenton Author Of Frederick Douglass in Ireland
By Laurence Fenton

Who am I?

I am a writer and editor living in Cork, Ireland. I have a PhD in history from University College Cork and am the author of four books, including two on the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I have been fascinated by Douglass ever since I discovered he travelled through Ireland as a young man, a tour that coincided with the onset of the Great Irish Famine. Douglass will also appear in the book I am currently writing, ‘Freedom’s Exiles’: The Poets, Plotters and Rebels and Who Found Refuge in Victorian Britain.

I wrote...

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

By Laurence Fenton,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass in Ireland

What is my book about?

Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1845, having decided to leave America after the publication of his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass spent four transformative months in Ireland, filling halls with eloquent denunciations of slavery and sharing a stage with the great Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell –who christened him ‘the black O’Connell of the United States’. Douglass delighted in the openness with which he was received in Ireland, but was also shocked at the poverty he encountered.

This compelling account of the celebrated abolitionist’s tour combines a unique insight into the formative years of one of the great figures of nineteenth-century America with a vivid portrait of a country on the brink of famine.

The books I picked & why

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

By Frederick Douglass,

Book cover of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Why this book?

Anyone wishing to explore the remarkable life of Frederick Douglass needs to start with his own writings, in particular his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the book that shot the young abolitionist to fame. While far from the first enslaved person’s narrative to have been printed, it was the best-written and most precise in detail, mixing scenes of great emotional warmth with brutal outrages that shocked contemporary readers. It also revealed Douglass’s real name (Frederick Bailey), leading to death threats and fears of recapture. Having decided to leave America until the furore died down, the 27-year-old Douglass embarked on the transformative near two-year tour of Britain and Ireland that has formed the basis of my recent work.

Frederick Douglass

By Benjamin Quarles,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass

Why this book?

Written at a time when the racist belief that Black authors could not be trusted to write African-American history was still prevalent even in the upper echelons of academia, this deft 1948 portrait of Douglass launched the career of Benjamin Quarles, the pioneering African-American historian whose body of work (including The Negro in the American Revolution and Lincoln and the Negro) transformed thinking about the role African-Americans played in the formation of the United States.

Young Frederick Douglass

By Dickson J. Preston,

Book cover of Young Frederick Douglass

Why this book?

An evocative account of the young Douglass and the Maryland world into which he was born. Originally published in 1980 but recently re-released, this is a beautiful book that delivers much more than the title suggests. It is also the book that finally pinpointed the correct month and year in which Douglass was born – February 1818. Those who enslaved people often kept such precious, deeply personal information away from those they enslaved - it was a sign of power, one minor manifestation of the many inquities of slavery.

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Why this book?

A self-proclaimed ‘woman’s rights man’, Douglass was one of the few men to attend the famous Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in New York in 1848 – the starting point of the women’s rights movement in the US. His connection to women, however, went far deeper than mere political support. Douglass, indeed, always felt more comfortable in the company of women than men, be they Black or white, family members, friends, or fellow activists. This book gives us a fuller picture of these women than ever before. It is particularly strong on Anna Murray, the free Black woman who was Douglass’s first wife. Anna played a pivotal role in Douglass’s escape from Maryland in 1838. She later spent many more years spiriting enslaved people along the Underground Railroad.  

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Why this book?

Decades in the making, Blight’s epic 2018 Pulitzer prize-winning biography will be the standard-bearer for works on Douglass for at least the next generation or two. It is the ideal combination of high-calibre writing, rigorous research, and empathy for its subject.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in abolitionism, Frederick Douglass, and slaves?

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