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Extremely rare presentation copy of Frederick Douglass's Narrative

DOUGLASS, FREDERICK. (English) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself

Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845

xvi, 125 pp. Original brown cloth. Some chipping and wear to binding, some foxing and browning. Entirely unrestored. Half morocco case.

FIRST EDITION of one of the great American autobiographies. Extremely rare presentation copy inscribed by Douglass: “To Miss Adeline Henshaw from her Friend Frederick Douglass, 11th July 1845.” No other presentation copies have appeared for public sale in the past century, and the great institutional collections lack presentation copies of this American classic.

“The ‘greatest’ of the slave narratives, … the Narrative truly is everywhere in American literary study” (Levine, The Lives of Frederick Douglass).

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February 1818. His mother Harriet Bailey was a slave. His father, a white plantation manager, was rumored to be Aaron Anthony of the Lloyd plantation in St Michaels, Maryland.

This seminal American narrative recounts Douglass’s life as a slave and his escape from bondage at age twenty-one. On reaching the North he changed his name to avoid capture and return to slavery under the fugitive slave laws. He quickly became a force in the abolitionist movement, but some doubted that a slave could be so articulate and brilliant an orator. To prove the authenticity of his tale, Douglass wrote this book, his first memoir and one of the most influential of all American autobiographies.

“With his Narrative, Douglass succeeded in offering his readers and eventually also historians of American life, an unassailably reliable record of slavery from the viewpoint of one who had been enslaved” (Robert O’Meally).

The abolitionists Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison were mesmerized by the power and candor of the work. Garrison wrote of Douglass, “There stood one, in physical proportion and stature commanding and exact – in intellect richly endowed – in natural eloquence a prodigy – in soul manifestly ‘created but little lower than the angels’ – Yet a slave, a fugitive slave … by the law of the land, by the voice of the people, and by the terms of the slave code … only a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel personal.”

The Narrative revealed Douglass’s place of birth and former owners, placing him in legal jeopardy. Garrison and Phillips advised Douglass to leave the country. The book was published on May 28, 1845, and on August 6 Douglass left the United States for England, not to return for two years. The book was immensely popular among those who opposed slavery.  “The Narrative made Frederick Douglass the most famous black person in the world” (Blight).

“It was a daring recital of facts and Phillips feared that it might lead to his re-enslavement. Douglass published the little book in 1845, however, and then, to avoid possible consequences, visited Great Britain and Ireland. Here he remained two years, meeting nearly all of the English Liberals. For the first time in his life he was treated as a man and an equal. The resultant effect upon his character was tremendous. He began to conceive emancipation not simply as physical freedom; but as social equality and economic and spiritual opportunity” (W. E. B. Du Bois in Dictionary of American Biography).

Douglass became the leading advocate of the abolition of slavery and the greatest American reformer of the nineteenth century. “The most influential African American of the nineteenth century, Douglass made a career of agitating the American conscience. He spoke and wrote on behalf of a variety of reform causes: women’s rights, temperance, peace, land reform, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment. But he devoted the bulk of his time, immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans” (ANB).

The recipient of this presentation copy, Adeline Henshaw (1825-1912), was active in the abolition and women’s rights movements. Henshaw and her husband Joseph Howland, whom she married in 1847, attended the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850, at which Douglass spoke.

Presentation copies of the first edition of Douglass’s Narrative are extremely rare. The leading institutional collections of African-American history and abolition do not have a presentation copy.

No other examples appear in the auction records of the past century. We have traced only the following examples:

1.    Charles Heartman catalogue, 1948, recipient unidentified. Heartman was a pioneering specialist in African-American books.

2.    C. F. Libbie & Co., Catalogue of the Private Library of Adin Ballou, January 12-13, 1916, lot 459, presumably inscribed to the abolitionist Adin Ballou.

3.    The present copy

Nineteenth-century American classics of comparable importance and rarity in presentation copies include Moby-Dick (1851), The Book of Mormon (1830), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Leaves of Grass (1855). All of these would easily command strong-six figure prices could they be found. Comparable books that have appeared in inscribed copies in the past decade are Political Debates inscribed by Lincoln (1860) and Walden inscribed by Thoreau (1854), both exceeding $150,000.

Blockson, One Hundred and One Influential Books By and About People of African Descent 27.

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