In his famous prose-poem A Child's Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas, remembering all the gifts he received as a boy at Yuletide, begins his list with “the Useful presents: engulfing mufflers of the old coach days ... mittens made for giant sloths .... And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”
You may find it odd that I was reminded of this quote while reading Frederick Douglass's Autobiography of a Slave, but bear with me. As anyone who has attended one of my Civil War book discussions knows, I have a long and somewhat troubled relationship with that conflict. Despite my hatred of war, I find myself attracted to the stories growing out of this one, its personal dramas, its grand battlefield strategies. Despite the fact I find the Confederacy's myths and elaborate self-justifications laughable, I am a child of the South: I grew up on a steady diet of those myths and self-justifications; though my mind loathes the slavocracy they fought for, some deep unbiddable part of me as yet roots for the men in gray, as yet joins with them on every impossible, quixotic charge.
These contradictions in my relationship with the war may explain why I remain so stubbornly anxious to get at the Truth of the thing ... whatever that may be. And so too why I find so much of its history unsatisfying. Accounts written during and immediately after the conflict almost always skip over the daily life of the time in their race to reach and preach grand conclusions (their authors assuming, understandably, that their readers know the world they inhabit as well as we know ours); while modern historians, looking back a century and a half after the fact, struggle to re-create at best a pale image of what life—life itself—must have really been like. Not so Douglass.
He was writing for a Northern audience, an audience he knew to be as ignorant of, and curious about, the world of the slave-holding South as they were of Siam or Tierra del Fuego ... as, in fact, we are today. And so he gave them particulars. He took them on a tour of the everyday life and existence of a slave—and not just any slave, but a slave living in the particular and peculiar world of Talbot County, Maryland. In his autobiography, Douglass gives us specific and detailed descriptions of a world as foreign, exotic, and now as lost to us as Rome or Machu Picchu. Meeting and besting Dylan Thomas's challenge, he tells us everything about the wasp ... including why!
Douglass's autobiography is surprisingly brief, but its 84 pages possess a textual richness unusual in American letters. Reading it is not unlike reading the Gettysburg address, for the book's language not only recounts history, it is history. On Monday, August 12, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Thursday, August 22, at 2:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels library, I will host a discussion of this work integral to an understanding of the place we live in. Won't you join me?