Copyright © 2000. Douglass Papers Project. All rights reserved.

Aids to Reading the Documents

The method followed in editing Douglass's autobiographical writings reflects modern critical theory regarding the literary genre and the conventional concerns of historians concerning the evidentiary value of such works.1

Modern literary scholars regard the concept of a single, stable, unchanging text as invalid. Instead, reprinted and revised editions must be studied to produce a scholarly edition of the work capturing the author's intent. Literary scholars have discovered how dynamic nineteenth century published works were with authors intervening editorially in various stages of type composition, proofsheets, and in subsequent revised editions. For the Narrative alone, Douglass participated in the production of twenty-one editions. Collectively, Douglass produced thirty separate editions of his three autobiographies.

Committed to producing accurate and reliable printed versions of Douglass's autobiographies, the Project followed the guidelines laid down by the Modern Language Association's Center for Scholarly Editions (C.S.E.) on all textual practices. Each volume will supply a precise publication history of its autobiography. In addition, textual appendices will accompany each volume identifying all variations in the texts of authoritative manuscript and published editions of the autobiography and certifying Douglass's intention.2

Historians of slavery have long debated the credibility of Douglass's autobiographies. Among the most extreme proponents of that view was Ulrich B. Phillips, who declared in his seminal 1929 book, Life and Labor in the Old South, that "ex-slave narratives in general...were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful."3 Although accepting the possibility that Douglass wrote the Narrative, many other historians contended that Douglass was such an unusual individual that what he wrote was not characteristic of the lives and feelings of most slaves. Such views prompted a response from historian Gilbert Osofsky in 1969:

In describing his personal life, the sensitive and creative writer touches a deeper reality that transcends his individuality. Frederick Douglass, for example, was certainly an exceptional man, but his autobiography has much to teach us about the slaves around him, his friends and enemies on the plantation and in the city, and many other typical aspects of American slavery.... To exclude the "exceptional" is to eliminate all strong autobiography as a distortion of the events of its time. Yet it is these writers whose books are most likely to interpret reality with insight and clarity.4
Historians who have investigated the nature of historical evidence and attempted to corroborate autobiographical details by examining independent sources, share the views of such literary critics as Mandel. Foremost among these scholars are the twentieth-century historians who have edited nineteenth-century slave narratives.5 Typical of them was Robin Winks, who in 1968 called on historians examining slave narratives to try "to unravel the real from the unreal, and to show the validity of, and the truth that still lurks behind, that portion we could call unreal." The historian, Winks contended, "must concern himself fully as much with what people thought to be true, as with the so-called objective data of history," because "even though certain historical documents may be proven to be largely fictitious, or heavily embroidered, these same documents contain covert evidence of an objective reality."6

In order to grasp the objective reality of Douglass's life story as embodied in his autobiographies and diary, the historian, somewhat more than the literary critic and the psychologist, insists on going outside the text for independent data on the people and events mentioned in it. The editors have used annotations extensively in this volume to identify all those individuals, places, events, and literary allusions appearing in the texts and to substantiate Douglass's representation of them as much as possible. These annotations will be placed in an appendix to follow the text of each autobiography. The textual reference for each note will be indicated by means of the page and line numbers of the Yale edition text.

In addition to the textual appendiges and the historical annotation appendix, there will be one or more additional appendices published following the texts of the autobiographies. In each volume, one appendix will contain the sources and texts of the critical response to the autobiography, including published reviews and letters to Douglass. These critical responses are reprinted in the chronological order of their original publication. The names of "reviewers" are listed whenever they could be identified. The texts of all nineteenth century documents reproduced in these appendices will be transcribed and verified by the same procedures used for the texts of Douglass's autobiographical writings. The only form of annotation for these documents will be the brief introductions to each of the appendices.

1. A useful discussion to the contrasting methodologies of literary and historical editors can be found in Mary-Jo Klein, A Guide to Documentary Editing (Baltimore, 1987), 1-29; G. Thomas Tanselle, "The Editing of Historical Documents," Studies in Bibliography, 31:1-56 (January 1978).
2. The Center for Scholarly Editions' guidelines have been followed scrupulously. Additional readings of the texts by professional proof readers and editorial assistants preceded readings by the editors and the independent scholars. Center for Editions of American Authors, An Introductory Statement of Editorial Principles and Procedures, rev. ed. (New York, 1972); Center for Scholarly Editions, The Center for Scholarly Editions: An Introductory Statement (New York, 1977); Committee on Scholarly Editions, "Committee on Scholarly Editions: Aims and Policies," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 100:444-47 (September 1985); Paul Baender, "Reflections Upon the CEAA By a Departing Editor," Resources for American Literary Study, 4:131-44 (Autumn 1974); Klein, Documentary Editing, 8-23.
3. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston, 1929), 219; idem, The American Slave: A Survey of Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York, 1918), 445n; John W. Blassingame, ed.; Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), xvii; William L. Andrews, To Tell A Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana, Ill., 1986), 17, 295n; David Thomas Bailey, "A Divided Prism: Two Sources of Black Testimony on Slavery," Journal of Southern History, 46:182 (August 1980).
4. Gilbert Osofsky, ed., Puttin' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown,and Solomon Northrup (New York, 1969), 10-11.
5. Robin Winks et al, eds., Four Fugitive Slave Narratives (Reading, Mass., 1969), v-xxxiv; John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia, edited by F.N. Boney (Savannah, 1972), vii-xxi; Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (Baton Rouge, 1968), ix-xxiv; Osofsky, Puttin' on Ole Massa, 9-44.
6. Winks, Four Fugitive Slave Narratives, vii, v.

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