The Question of Intention

Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave depicts the tragedy of the typical life in slavery by detailing the life of one individual who had the fortunate circumstances to escape the clutches of his masters. His narrative was important for the abolitionist cause. Yet, according to many of the theorists of the New Critical method it would seem that these important aspects of Douglass’ Narrative are not worthy of critical study. However, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” offer some guidance that might allow for the inclusion of information from outside of the text itself, and in the case of Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave the arguments put forward in “The Intentional Fallacy” even allow for a small amount of discussion of Douglass’ intention regarding his text.

Under normal circumstances, Wimsatt and Beardsley would flinch at the inclusion of information within a critical study that brings the question of authorial intention. They state,

The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The Poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge. (Wimsatt and Beardsley 5)

They argue that authorial intention cannot be part of the criticism of a literary text because only the text is up for discussion, and even the discussion of allusion (while it is allowed) is viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. They discuss allusion as a grey area for critical study. While the inclusion of allusion in a critical study of a text can lead to more understanding of a text, assuming that the text that repeats another text is an allusion is nearly the same as assuming that the author intended the repetition of text as an allusion. They state, “The Question of ‘allusiveness,’ for example, as acutely posed by the poetry of Eliot, is certainly one where a false judgement is likely to involve the intentional fallacy. […] Never the less, we submit that this [the study of allusion] is the true and objective way of criticism […]” (Wimsatt & Beardsley 14, 18). Therefore, if allusion is accepted as a legitimate area for criticism, then the extra-textual life of the subject of the autobiography can be part of a literary criticism of the text if it is done with great care.

Douglass’ Narrative was published by the Anti-Slavery Office in in 1845 and contains a preface by W.M. Lloyd Garrison, an American abolitionist and a letter by Wendell Phillips, who was also an abolitionist. The prefaces by these two abolitionists were chosen by the publisher and likely with permission given by Douglass himself. Therefore, the prefaces have been deemed, at least, to have artistic merit when read alongside the main text of Douglass’ Narrative, and they do fall in line with the main theme. In his preface to Douglass’ Narrative, William Lloyd Garrison states,

After much deliberation, however, he consented to make a trial; and ever since that period, he has acted as a lecturing agent, under the auspices either of the American or the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In labors he has been most abundant; and his success in combating prejudice, in gaining proselytes, in agitating the public mind, has far surpassed the most sanguine expectations that were raised at the commencement of his brilliant career. (Douglass 328)

In the second preface, “Letter from Wendell Phillips, Esq.,” Wendell Phillips writes,

Let us hear, then, what [slavery] is at its best estate—gaze on its bright side, if it has one; and then imagination may task her powers to add dark lines to the picture, as she travels southward to that (for the colored man) Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the Mississippi sweeps along. (Douglass 336)

The two prefaces share abolitionist themes. Garrison’s preface tells of the progress that Douglass made for the anti-slavery cause, and Phillips’ preface gives Douglass direction in how he could best help the anti-slavery cause. Douglass Narrative does share in these abolitionist themes. Douglass states,

I had not long been a reader of the “Liberator,” before I got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures and spirit of the anti-slavery reform. I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little; but what I could, I did with a joyful heart, and never felt happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting. (Douglass 429)

Where Douglass’ Narrative does follow in the anti-slavery themes that are displayed in the prefaces, it also shows a man who is intent on living a quiet life of anonymous support of the abolition of slavery. But the prefaces, if they tell of intention at all, tell only of the intentions of Garrison and Phillips to pressure Douglass to do more for the anti-slavery cause.

Therefore, to the extent that authorial intent can be shown through the text of an autobiography, the textual Douglass’ intent is support the abolitionist cause through reading their papers and attending their events as an audience member. However, the fact that the prefaces and Douglass’ Narrative exists at all shows that Douglass, the author, goes on to do much more than simply attend abolitionist events. Whether or not Douglass is pressured into a taking a greater role than the one he expressed intent to take within the text of his narrative, he did assume this greater role as a noteworthy abolitionist. While the textual Douglass’ intentions to become an influential abolitionist remain unclear, Douglass, the author, proves these intentions through his actions.





Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. in The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, editor. Signet: New York, 1987.

Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

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