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Frederick Douglass: ‘Transcending Slavery’

In 19th century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” finds a satisfying manifestation in Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. A careful examination reveals Douglass to be the epitome of Emerson’s “Man Thinking,” a distinction which allows Douglass to escape slavery in a thoroughly transcendental way. In “The American Scholar,” Emerson expounds upon the deficits in the American education system, in particular, passive knowledge consumption. In an attempt to correct this deficit, Emerson enumerates the qualifications necessary to achieve the pinnacle of American scholarship, which he calls “Man Thinking.” Emerson claims that a man must be in touch with nature, he must explore the past through books, he must activate his soul, and he must use his new knowledge to take action and produce change. Douglass, a mixed-race man born of rape, reaches each of the essential phases and meets all necessary requirements for Emerson’s conceptualization. As a slave, often commodified and rendered as livestock, he can be no closer to nature. Reading the written orations of the past, Douglass is spurred into taking action to change his slave status. His soul is fundamentally active. It is this combination of factors which allows Douglass to transcend slavery and embody, ironically, the zenith of white transcendental intellectualism.


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18 Jul 2022
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  • Subject
    • English

  • Institution
    • Gainesville

  • Event location
    • Nesbitt 3217

  • Event date
    • 25 March 2016

  • Date submitted

    18 July 2022

  • Additional information
    • Acknowledgements:

      Dr. Jurgen Grandt