Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: A Masterpiece of Propaganda
When was the last time you were exposed to propaganda? If you think it was more than a day ago, you are probably unaware of what propaganda really is. According to Donna Woolfolk Cross in “Propaganda: How not to be Bamboozled,” propaganda is “simply a means of persuasion” (149). She further notes that we are subjected daily to propaganda in one form or another as advertisers, politicians, and even our friends attempt to persuade us to use their product, vote for them, or adopt their point of view. Propaganda is usually considered in a negative sense. However, when viewing propaganda as mere persuasion, one can readily appreicate that it is neither good nor evil: the good/evil effect is the direct result of the purpose for which it is used.
Politicians and leaders have long used propaganda to further their goals; Hitler’s use of propaganda as a means of controlling the populace of Nazi Germany is the most recognizable twentieth century example of propaganda used for evil. On the other hand, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he urges non-violent resistance in the cause of racial equality, portrays persuasion used with good intentions. Although oratory, as in King’s speech, is a highly effective means of delivering ideas or doctrines, the written word can be an even more influential medium. In the early days of America, long before instant communication, literature was used extensively as a means of persuasion. As early as 1631, John Smith wrote “Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters…’’ to encourage settlement in the new world; indeed, much of classical early American literature was written as propaganda for one cause or another.
Such was the case with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a pre-Civil War autobiography written at the urging of the Northern Abolitionist movement and employed effectively as propaganda for its cause. Although the work was ostensibly written to prove that Douglass had actually been a slave, according to critic Houston A Baker, Jr. “the light of abolitionism is always present” (584). Douglass, working for the abolitionist group, wrote for a specific audience: white Puritan Christians whom the abolitionists hoped to convert to their way of thinking. Thus, what began as a telling of life experiences evolved into a mighty tool of persuasion.
As does all propaganda, Douglass’ Narrative contains certain elements that appeal to the emotions of the reader. This emotional hold allows the writer to sway the opinion of the reader. The various devices employed in his artful promotion of abolitionism are especially worthy of note, for, although a self-taught writer and orator, Douglass makes use of sophisticated elements of persuasive writing.
Most evident of the literary devices he uses is his treatment of language to manipulate or produce an...