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Frederick Douglass's “The Heroic Slave”: Text, context, and interpretation

Melba P Jensen, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In November 1852, Frederick Douglass composed The Heroic Slave , a novella about Madison Washington's leadership of the 1841 Creole insurrection. In the novella, Douglass attempted to justify his adoption of political methods to the antislavery community. As literary models for his story, Douglass drew on portraits of heroic slaves in his own autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Harriet B. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; Or, Life among the Lowly (1852), Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812–18), and the deposition of the Creole crew, called the “New Orleans Protest” (1841). The result was an intertextual conversation among Douglass, Stowe, Byron, and the Creole crew, which Douglass used to initiate a series of autobiographical revisions. Reading The Heroic Slave as an intertextual conversation offers an alternative to the current practice of assigning this work either to the genre of fiction or to the slave narrative, which has subordinated discussion of the historical context for the story's composition to contemporary attempts to theorize the genre of autobiography. An intertextual reading shows that Douglass was developing a notion of political discourse and action based on friendship as an alternative to Stowe's emphasis on moral reform based on sympathy. Douglass's emphasis on friendship in the novella was, in part, a response to his collaboration with Gerrit Smith, whom he helped elect to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852, and the novella reflects Douglass's intellectual and professional development from 1847 to 1852, a period to which his latter autobiographies give relatively little attention. Writing a history of Madison Washington's participation in the Creole rebellion for an audience who had, largely, forgotten the event, offered Douglass the opportunity to examine the connection between enslavement and erasure from national history. His novella attempted to reverse this process by presenting Washington's actions as a battle in an ongoing American revolution.

Subject Area

American literature|Black history

Recommended Citation

Jensen, Melba P, "Frederick Douglass's “The Heroic Slave”: Text, context, and interpretation" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3179890.