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Approaches to Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

James C. Hall, ed. Approaches to Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: MLA, 1999. 174 pp. $37.50 cloth/ $18.00 paper.

This is a useful volume. Few books from nineteenth-century American literature are more taught, written about, and discussed than Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It has become, as several contributors to this volume note, the representative text from nineteenth-century African American literature for courses in American history and literature. It has been identified as the ur-text of African American autobiography, and an almost obligatory point of reference for the study of American autobiographical traditions in general. The collection of brief essays brought together in James C. Hall's Approaches to Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass will provide even the most experienced teacher of Douglass's work with valuable ideas for approaching the Narrative and bringing it to life for students.

As the title of the collection indicates, its focus is mainly on teaching. There are sixteen essays in the book, as well as a fine bibliographical piece by editor Hall, incorporating the suggestions of over sixty scholars surveyed for the volume. The collection itself shows striking diversity, as authors offer suggestions for integrating the Narrative into a broad array of teaching contexts. The essays vary, not surprisingly, in quality and significance. Some focus primarily on the personal experiences of those who have tried to use Douglass's Narrative in the classroom, including the approaches they have taken and the responses of their students. A few even provide excerpts, often quite interesting, from student essays. Others take a more clearly scholarly approach to Douglass's text, analyzing it critically to show, for example, how it can be used to disrupt students' assumptions about the nature of race, or how it can be fitted into contexts of American sentimental, protest, and ideological traditions.

No one will find any strikingly new interpretations of Douglass's Narrative in this volume. The breadth of coverage in the essays does mean, however, that the authors often raise points one may not carefully have considered. If anything, this breadth reminds us how rich Douglass's Narrative is, how open it is to multiple approaches and interpretations, and how useful it can be to teachers and scholars with a range of concerns about nineteenth-century American history and literature. And because no one will, of course, agree with everything such a diverse collection of pieces offers, the volume reminds us of the significant controversies scholarship on Douglass, on African American letters, and on race continues to raise.

Again--although a few of the essays stress the separate place African American writing continues to be accorded in American literary studies--there is a general sense conveyed in this collection that Douglass's Narrative has come to assume an important place in the American literary canon. Some decry what this means, especially in terms of the exclusion of other major African American writers. In general, however, the essays offer a sense that even this can be a useful issue for teachers to address. Asking what has given Douglass's Narrative its appeal can give great insight not only into Douglass's times, but into our own as well. It can be particularly useful for giving us insight into the profession of literature, as such, as a number of the authors note. As they make clear, the reasons we have come to privilege Douglass's work have significant implications for our understanding of issues of race, gender, and ideological purpose as these have affected the ways we choose to try to make students aware of the importance of literary study.

If the essays help focus reflection on the part of those who teach Douglass's Narrative, they will have served an important purpose. But anyone who reads the essays for what their authors bring to the presentation of Douglass in the classroom will profit from this book.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Bruce, Jr., Dickson D.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:643
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