David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century ... Blight is masterful in handling this material. In these moments, the pace of this big book picks up; the details pull you in; and if only just for a moment, the larger-than-life image dips and we see the man.
Blight’s is the first major biography of Douglass in nearly three decades, making ample use of materials in the private collection of a retired doctor named Walter O. Evans to illuminate Douglass’s later years, after the Civil War ... On the stuff that’s known, Blight is an attentive if sometimes fastidious guide, poring over speeches and texts with the critical equivalent of a magnifying glass ... Blight’s book really comes into its own in the later chapters, as it conveys Douglass’s trajectory through Reconstruction, his support for (and split from) the women’s suffrage movement, and beyond ... Blight isn’t looking to overturn our understanding of Douglass, whose courage and achievements were unequivocal, but to complicate it — a measure by which this ambitious and empathetic biography resoundingly succeeds.
[an] extraordinary new biography ... Blight has certainly written, in the book’s texture and density and narrative flow—one violent and provocative incident arriving right after another—a great American biography.
David Blight’s extraordinary new biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, captures the complexities of the man who lived and died at Cedar Hill: a figure both eminent and solitary who gazed across vastly different American landscapes ... But Blight thoroughly justifies his claim [that Douglass is a 'prophet of freedom'] in a book that is not just a deeply researched birth-to-death chronology but also an extended meditation on what it means to be a prophet ... Douglass himself was apparently never recorded by the phonograph operators. But in Blight’s pages, his voice again rings out loud and clear, melancholy and triumphant — still prophesying, still agitating, still calling us to action.
... cinematic and deeply engaging ... Douglass cultivated the fiction that he was 'self-made' and had sprung fully formed from his own forehead. Blight dismantles this pretense in a tour de force of storytelling and analysis, showing that the young orator-to-be had benefited from a great deal of mentorship and good fortune. Viewed through this lens, the fabled escape from slavery takes on different contours ... Blight draws on new archival material and insights gleaned from a lifetime in the company of his subject to shed light on the orator’s complex relationship with his wife, Anna, and the two white women who came between the couple within the walls of the Douglass family home in Rochester.
Blight succeeds in painting a portrait of Douglass that explains his monumental public achievements as well and his personal charms and shortcomings ... In the end, this lavish, sprawling biography — 854 pages including notes and acknowledgements — is mostly an extended meditation on the prized and peculiar American penchant for self-invention and re-invention ... Blight's opus manages to be both a celebration of a remarkable life and a sober reminder of the many ways in which our terrible times are shaped by those Douglass lived through.
[Various authors] have documented [Douglass'] life many times, most notably William McFeeley, whose 1991 biography has been the standard work for almost three decades... Mr. McFeeley’s book, though, will likely be supplanted by David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom ... A masterful, comprehensive biography such as Mr. Blight’s is particularly welcome in times such as these, when politicians such as the president are gleefully stoking the same racial divisions that Mr. Douglass spent his life trying to extinguish.
Mr. Blight’s biography deserves full immersion. Though long, it is absorbing and even moving, and the payoff is enormous, for Mr. Blight displays his lifelong interest in Douglass on almost every page, and his own voice is active and eloquent throughout the narrative. It is a book that speaks to our own time as well as Douglass’s... It is a brilliant book.
It’s hard to imagine a biographer more knowledgeable about Douglass’s life, times and writings than David W. Blight ... This grand and timely biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, is ever authoritatively informative, but it travels at a safe and steady 25 m.p.h. on a straight road while Douglass’s life was often a dangerous and boundless adventure. Where Blight is best is investigating those topics where the usually intrepid Douglass hesitated to tread... In those mysterious spaces, Blight is the best guide we could ask for, even though he sometimes seems sorry to have to mention his and our hero’s clay feet.
This highly attractive, readable biography weaves together Douglass’ dramatic personal story...with a general history of the struggle against slavery through the end of the Civil War ... What this biography shows is the undeniable charisma of the abolitionist.
... Blight's book is particularly brilliant in fleshing out that later, public period of his subject's life. In addition to wearing his scholarly erudition lightly (though enormous, this is an effortlessly readable book), Blight is also winningly curious, constantly probing the settled scenes of Douglass's fame in order to locate the man inside the growing mythos. It's an academic's reflex, posing questions in order to further discussion, and in Blight's handling, it works with smooth believability ... This is a magnificent biography of an American who remains perennially pivotal to the national story; it deserves to be the standard Frederick Douglass life for a new generation.
Any biography of Frederick Douglass will find its toughest competition coming from Douglass himself. His passionate memoirs vividly bring to life the anguish of slavery and testify to Douglass’s humanity and intelligence. Yet, in the bicentennial year of Frederick Douglass’s birth, preeminent Douglass scholar David W. Blight rose to the challenge with the release of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, likely to become the definitive biography of one of America’s most important public figures ... David Blight’s book delivers the new Frederick Douglass standard-bearer for years to come.
Yale historian David W. Blight brilliantly captures this legendary figure and his times in the magnificent Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, one of the best biographies of recent years. Blight’s portrait of Douglass is engrossing, moving, nuanced, frightening—and certainly thought-provoking.
Blight has also deftly integrated newly unearthed materials relating to Douglass' later life into his monograph, making it the most comprehensive biography of Douglass ever written. The author does an admirable job of keeping his audience culturally oriented, continually reminding the reader of the presence and crucial influence of Scripture — particularly the Old Testament — on Douglass' thinking and writing. Above all, Blight lets this remarkable voice speak for itself throughout the text. Douglass excelled at telling his own story (he wrote three autobiographies), and Blight does not talk over him ... Blight has written a biography that will likely stand as definitive for decades to come.
...Blight has been able to delve more deeply than previous scholars into a period that many have depicted as an anticlimax, when the fiery moral crusader became a Republican Party functionary and government bureaucrat. Overall, the result is a consistently engrossing book that is likely to remain the definitive account of Douglass’s life for many years to come ... Blight quotes extensively from and offers astute analyses of Douglass’s remarkable speeches, including great set pieces ... Blight places more emphasis than previous biographers on the importance of the Bible to Douglass’s rhetorical style and political outlook ... Blight frequently invokes the analogy between Douglass and the 'old prophets'—perhaps too frequently, as this leads to a relative neglect of the secular foundations of Douglass’s vision ... One of the more startling themes of Blight’s book is the candid portrait he offers of Douglass’s 'dysfunctional' family life ... Douglass left behind an enormous public record, but as Blight readily acknowledges, the private man remains frustratingly elusive.
... massive and masterful ... The author, an American history professor at Yale and a Douglass scholar of many decades, manages the task beautifully, quoting liberally from his subject’s brilliant books, speeches, and articles... while providing context on his eventful times, his friendships and rivalries, and his enduring relevance ... In Blight’s able hands, its many lessons are brought, relevant and alive, into the 21st century.
Blight’s book is – thankfully – not a psychobiography. But it offers penetrating insights into the effect slavery had on Douglass’s personality ... This is a monumental book, a definitive biography, rich with the biblical cadences that filled Douglass’ life and imagination.
David W. Blight has given to the canon of biography a compelling, deeply researched, and engaging account of Frederick Douglass ... Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a book to be admired and cherished.
...authoritative, meticulously researched ... Blight’s arc traces the familiar lines of Douglass’ story...but assiduously fleshing it out with rich detail and context ... This is scholarship on an epic yet accessible scale, occasionally dry but always vital, as Douglass’ writing, activism and contradictions speak directly to us today. Blight taps previously neglected archives to re-create Douglass’ later years ... Blight’s exhaustive, donnish approach may not suit every reader’s palate. But it’s a commanding account of a singular life, a sumptuous portrait of a crusader unyielding in his pursuit of racial justice.
... magnificently expansive and detailed ... [Blight's] sensitive, careful, learned, creative, soulful exploration of Douglass’s grand life, however, transcends his own identity ... Keenly attuned to the politics of public memory, Blight shows that the current profusion of claims on Douglass’s legacy bears close scrutiny...
In one of the year’s most impressive biographies, Yale historian David W. Blight captures the many sides of this complex man ... Even if the author's prose can shade into a fulsome ripeness, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is superb. It gives a full portrait of Douglass’ political evolution, his family life and the emotional upheavals born of Douglass’ unlikely trajectory from slave to, as he often put it, a 'self-made man.'
A lengthy but easily digestible biography of the famed ex-slave, abolitionist, and autobiographer ... Blight delivers what is sure to be considered the standard-bearer for years to come. A masterful, comprehensive biography, particularly of Douglass’ Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age years and occupations.
The Douglass who emerges from this massive work is not always heroic, or even likable, but Blight illuminates his personal struggles and achievements to emphasize what an extraordinary person he was. Though one might wonder, given Douglass’s extensive writings and the numerous works of scholarship discussing him, about the need for yet another biography, it turns out that there was much more to be learned about him.