Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass.
Inventing stories about the lives of other people, biographers sometimes find themselves peeping through the keyholes of doors that remain shut to them. They hang their mirrors, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, in odd corners so that they can see what they were never meant to see. To keep such intruders at bay, to retain at least a modicum of control over the ways in which his life and achievements would be represented, Frederick Douglass rewrote his autobiography three times, and he carefully expurgated his papers. Douglass and his heirs, writes Maria Diedrich, a professor of American Studies at the University of Minister, in her provocative new book, seem to have cospired "to conceal and correct history." This, in and of itself, was nothing unusual; many nineteenth-century writers celebrated the "age of newspapers and telegrams and photographs and interviewers," as Henry James dubbed it, by lighting bonfires in their gardens. Henry James himself, of course, burned many of his papers, Henry Adams did, and Mark Twain at least said he did.
Douglass's companion Ottilie Assing, the immigrant half-Jewish journalist from Hamburg. Germany, who knew and loved the ex-slave for more than two decades, also asked that her papers be destroyed. The executor of her will, a young lawyer named Dr. Kudlich, complied, reporting to an anxious Douglass on 18 July 1885 that he had committed to the flames "a large number of carefully preserved packages of letters arranged according to date from the year 1830." But the good Dr. Kudlich had apparently taken a peek before lighting the match: Assing's documents, he noted, as if intending to taunt future biographers, "constituted a treasure in themselves and bore the signatures of eminent men and women and I was reluctant to permit these precious documents to disappear in smoke." Just one fragmentary letter from Douglass to Assing survives, while Douglass's papers contain a mere twenty-eight letters from Assing (edited recently, under the title Radical Passion, by Christoph Lohmann)--nothing when measured against the le ngth of their involvement. One inevitably thinks of Henry James's feisty Tina Bordereau, who, having successfully incinerated the papers of famed poet Jeffrey Aspern, informs his horrified would-be biographer: "It took a long time. There were so many of them."
The story of Assing and Douglass was, declares Diedrich, "begging to be written." Was it really? If so, the begging certainly wasn't done by Douglass or
Assing. Their affair ended painfully, with Douglass's marriage in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a white woman twenty years his junior, and Ottilie Assing's lonely suicide, from an overdose of laudanum, in the Bois de Boulogne a few months later. Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines was written for our, the modern readers', sakes, as a response to our increasing interest in stories that take us into the borderlands of race and ethnicity--concerns that would have seemed strange to the likes of Douglass and Assing. In fact, as Diedrich points out, despite her infatuation with the handsome, "powerfully built" Douglass, despite her own experiences, in Germany, with antisemitic sentiments, Assing still saw African American culture as inferior and remained a lifelong "essentialist" in terms of race.
Biographies, said critic Edward Mendelson, defending his decision not to write the "authorized" biography of W. H. Auden, are written either to inflict pain on the living or to surround with the dubious halo of fiction those who are already safely dead. Liberated by a comparative lack of reliable sources, Diedrich adopts the role of self-conscious fictionalizer. Her chapters are preceded by italicized passages, some of which, even when they seem to have been inspired by Assing's own accounts, come to us as frank inventions. In Love Across Color Lines, Diedrich emerges as a virtuoso of the "as if," a writer who knows how to transmogrify the "might" into the "must have been." Thus we learn of Ottilie's emotions at her dead mother's bedside ("Only peace and the warm glow of the sun") and of what Douglass first felt when he beheld Ottilie on his doorstep ("He liked the way she allowed her heavy blond curls to show against the confinement of the hat"), and how Ottilie and Fred would greet the new day in the Dougla ss household in Rochester, New York, where the latter's wife had learned to look the other way: "He and Ottilie exchanged a warm smile that needed no words and no touch. . . . It would be a good day!"
Some of these passages come perilously close to the style of a Harlequin Romance, and in fact Diedrich herself seems to have modeled them on a novel that also supplies some of the epigraphs in her book, the German writer Clara Mundt's melodramatic tale of interracial love, Aphra Behn (1849). But Diedrich's fictionalizations also carry over into the text proper of her biography, peppered as it is with exclamation marks and rhetorical questions: "What was there for her to say?" But here they work much better, complicating an already complex story in ways which will delight many readers and no doubt infuriate others. Diedrich, to be sure, is no biographer to stand back and leave her protagonists to their own devices. Throughout the book the reader feels a curious discrepancy between the ease with which Diedrich enters her characters' minds, supplying them with the thoughts to think and the emotions to feel, and her frequent reminders that we might never know what "really" transpired between Ottilie and the man s he affectionately addressed as "Big Bird." Thus, Diedrich's interior monologizing can also serve to indicate distance rather than empathy: "Did it occur to [Ottilie] that her and Douglass's visions might not be compatible?" Incidentally, the basic uncertainty that surrounds "the facts" of the story is also reflected in the host of terms Diedrich employs to characterize the elusive relationship that is her subject, such as "eroticized union," "liaison," "association," "pas de deux," or even "delicious secret."
The biographer's "split consciousness" manifests itself most clearly whenever Diedrich suddenly steps out of her own narrative and begins to pass judgment on her characters. More often than not, it is Assing who bears the brunt of Diedrich's opprobrium, as if the sheer fact of Douglass's race exonerates him, while Ottilie's lingering class prejudice and her European refinement do her in. Teaching him German and introducing him to Feuerbach's atheism, Assing seems to have looked at Douglass as her creation--which is why, Diedrich seems to argue, her life fell apart when Douglass, after the death of his wife, not only married someone else but also had a minister officiate at the wedding! In Diedrich's view, Douglass's choice appears as the more honest one: "Was it right to discard this dream of a perfect relationship with Helen Pitts for the sake of pity and gratitude?" Perhaps Douglass had, she speculates, tired of his intense companion; while Assing knew only "friend or foe," writes Diedrich, Douglass possess ed "a rare gift of differentiation." Some readers may think this an overly generous interpretation of an act of sheer male egotism. But Love Across Color Lines is a difficult book about a difficult relationship that cannot be approached "in a direct line," and Diedrich makes clear that all judgments, including her own, cannot be other than provisional.
In the final analysis, however, all attempts at Douglass-boosting fail, as Diedrich admits, when confronted with the silent figure of Anna Murray Douglass, the abolitionist's illiterate first wife, who had barely mastered the checkbook and recognized with certainty only the two words that spelled her famous husband's name. Racked by bouts of vomiting and other illnesses, Anna put up with Douglass's white groupies, watching the departure, after four long years, of the Englishwoman Julia Griffiths from her household, only to see her soon replaced with Ottilie Assing from Germany, who made no secret of her profound contempt for the "stupid old hag." Raising, as best she knew how, Douglass's five children, washing his laundry and placing good food on his dinner table, Anna was perceived by visitors, if they noticed her at all, as a harmless, wordless, morose drudge, dressed in plain cotton, a red bandana wrapped around her head. Inevitably, she has faded into the footnotes of Douglass's life, is mentioned only c asually in his autobiographies, and appears only once--as Douglass's "completely black wife"--in Assing's public writings. Even Douglass's biographers have been hard put to account for her presence, invoking, as William McFeely did not too long ago, Anna's "primal tenacity," as if she symbolized the return of the repressed, the beckoning of a remote African past, in the life of a man whose public successes allowed him to forget occasionally "that my skin was dark and my hair crisped." But the woman we see in the most widely known photograph of Anna is clearly a more complex person. Dressed in her Sunday best, her hair carefully done, she stares defiantly at the viewer. As Diedrich astutely suggests, Anna's stubborn illiteracy might have been a conscious choice rather than a condition, the indication of a refusal to accept, as her husband obviously had, "white middle-class culture as the norm." But this, of course, we cannot know for sure. Since Anna wrote nothing down, she had no papers to burn. "Border State " was the nickname Douglass and Assing invented for her, possibly also because Anna defined the limits of their relationship--just as she now, proudly, defines the limits of the biographer's ambition to know everything: the blank that no invention can fill in. In a letter to her sister, Ottilie Assing referred to Anna as that "unknowledgeable" creature. Unknowable would have been a better word.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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