Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life.
Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life is an exemplary intellectual, political, social, cultural, and ideological investigation into Douglass's many lives as lived in Scotland. As the first full-length and exhaustively researched study of Douglass's visit to Scotland in 1846, Pettinger's volume is to be highly commended for its innovative literary, cultural, and philosophical analyses and for its effortless mapping of Douglass's transatlantic life and works. According to Pettinger's ground-breaking volume, Douglass's international acts and arts of authorship and activism are newly situated within their competing Scottish literary, intellectual, philosophical, and historical contexts. As he powerfully argues and effortlessly establishes, 'Scotland was of course not the only crucible of Douglass's development, but circumstances there did offer him opportunities to experiment and assert himself in ways he had not done previously' (p. 25).
At the same time, Pettinger undertakes pioneering intellectual work by candidly coming to grips with Douglass's deliberate ambivalences and purposeful ambiguities. As he states, 'While Douglass sometimes flatters his audiences by talking about his warm welcome in Scotland, and the country's noble history of struggles on behalf of freedom, we need to recognise this as strategic, a gesture that is often followed by more critical, rebuking remarks that charge his listeners with being too quiet and weak over the issue of slavery' (p. 293). All his life, Douglass had no qualms in naming and shaming any and all western nations, and not solely Scotland, for their heinous acts of capitalist greed, immoral barbarity, and unforgivable sin. Never one to equivocate, dilute or distract attention away from his antislavery message, Douglass lent his blisteringly powerful and exceptionally eloquent voice to the condemnation of all white supremacist countries that were responsible for the enforced displacement of millions of people across the African diaspora over the centuries. All his life, he castigated white audiences on both side of the Atlantic for their immoral enjoyment of a personal and public wealth that was made possible solely by the buying and selling of the 'bones and sinews' of enslaved women, children, and men of all ages, nationalities, religions, beliefs, and cultures.
Among the many outstanding accomplishments of Pettinger's stellar volume is the effortless ease with which his nuanced study succeeds in his stated aim that 'in this book we follow his movements in Scotland, watching him gaining the confidence, mastering the skills and fashioning the distinctive voice and public image that transformed him as a campaigner' (p. 24). More especially, his claim that 'notable Scots' played a 'vital role' in 'transforming Douglass' (p. 13) is exceptionally well-founded. As he emphasises, 'they prompted far-reaching changes in his styles of speaking and writing, in his choice of heroes and how he identified with them, and in the new fervour with which he attempted to control the way he was represented verbally and pictorially' (p. 25). Overall, Pettinger's focus on Scotland as the crucible in which Douglass realizes a multitude of freedoms--not only legal but political, cultural, and imaginative--represents a major intervention into twenty-first century Douglass studies. In powerful ways, he asks and answers his own question, 'Is there a place for him [Douglass] in the gap between Scottish historiography (which ignores Douglass) and Douglass studies in the United States (which has little to say about Scotland)?' (p. 299).
Pettinger's volume does inarguable justice to his focus on Scotland in the making not only of Douglass but of the many Douglasses by evidencing the ways in which he ranges expertly across numerous core yet under-researched areas. These include but are by no means restricted to the following: Douglass's transatlantic positionality; Douglass's navigation of religious discourse; Douglass's interrogation of activist networks; Douglass's rejection of segregated transportation systems; Douglass's cultivation of celebrity; Douglass's mythological investment in Scotland as the land of freedom versus the US as the land of slavery; Douglass's immersion in literary, phrenological, cultural, and activist discourses. Yet more revealingly, Pettinger provides an expert investigation into Douglass's complex navigation of Robert Burns's body of work and the 'widely known' fact that 'Burns had obtained a position on a sugar plantation near Port Antonio in Jamaica' (p. 137). While he demonstrates that the 'first book' Douglass 'purchased after escaping from slavery was an edition of his [Burns's] works' (p. 134), he emphasises that in his speeches in which he was ostensibly lauding the life and works of this world-renowned Scottish poet, 'Douglass leaves us with an impression of a man we're not sure is worthy of imitation or not' (p.155). Whereas extant scholarship has begun to examine some of these core areas of Douglass's life and works, none of this research has as yet grappled with these concepts by adopting a Scotland-centric lens. Incontestably, it is this Scotland-centric lens endorsed by Pettinger that is intellectually and theoretically ground-breaking as well as richly illuminating for Douglass researchers today.
Yet another major contribution to knowledge on offer here is the effortless ease with which Pettinger showcases Scotland as the geographical, national, mythological, and cultural space in which Douglass was able to resist not only white proslavery racism but white abolitionist myopia. As Pettinger incisively argues, and powerfully demonstrates through the richness of his layered and meticulous archival research, Douglass 'arrived as a subordinate envoy of white abolitionists, technically still a fugitive slave' (p. 24), but '[h]e returned as a free man ready to embark on a new stage of his career, as editor and proprietor of his own newspaper and a leader in his own right' (pp. 25-26). Among the many superlative strengths of this volume in which he also includes his meticulously researched appendices is Pettinger's unparalleled knowledge of the field of primary and secondary works, published and unpublished, on Douglass in Scotland. In this regard, his knowledge is unprecedented in any scholar of Douglass working today.
Finally, Pettinger's outstanding afterword undertakes vital intellectual and political work by tracing the many Douglass legacies that live on today. At the same time that he declares, 'I have tried to situate' Douglass 'firmly in the mid-nineteenth century and, as far as possible, to interpret his words and understand his actions in the context of his own time' (p. 302), he provides a seminal investigation into 'the significance of Douglass today: in the context of the growing academic study and public awareness of Scotland's slavery and anti-slavery past, and in the context of the changing image of "Scotland" in the United States' (p. 26). As Sojourner Truth, a formerly enslaved woman turned social justice campaigner asked, amidst the blood and fire of the Civil War, so we must also ask today in an era in which the 'spirit of slavery' lives on: 'Where's Frederick?'
University of Edinburgh
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|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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