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Essay Questions On Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life

How does Douglass revisit the mythology of Ben Franklin and the "self-made man"? How does Douglass go about making himself in the narrative? To what extent does he embody Emersonian self-reliance?

How does Douglass connect violence and power in his narrative (either as a means for oppression, like with Aunt Hester in Chapter I, or as a means for self-empowerment, like with Covey in Chapter X)?

How does Douglass conceive of freedom? What qualities or characteristics does it seem to have for him? What skills or values is it necessary for him to learn before he can make the transition from slavery to freedom? Why does he view these skills as essential?

What "American" values or ethics does Douglass seem to embrace or reject? How might we compare Douglass with Thoreau in this regard? How does each view the individual's relationship with society?

What are the various methods that slaveholders use in order to keep slaves submissive? What kind of commentary does Douglass make about these methods? Which of them, for instance, seems the most insidious to him? Why?

What thoughts does Douglass have about religion and God? Does his disclaimer in the appendix challenge the picture he paints in the narrative, or just offer a guide to interpreting that picture? How do his views on religion compare to the views of Equiano, Wheatley, or other writers we've discussed this semester?

Compare the situations and narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. How does gender influence or differentiate the experience of these writers? Do they experience the same kind of slavery or freedom, for instance?

Essay Questions Spring 2012

Please respond to one of the following questions on the text you have pre-selected by producing a six to seven page (roughly 1,800-2,200 word), well-focused, well-supported essay that makes an argument about the text. (Deadlines for this essay will depend upon your chosen topic and may be found in the syllabus.)If you are interested in creating your own topic, contact me via email or arrange to see me. Please also feel free to ask questions about this assignment.

You may use the sample essays posted elsewhere on the course website as sources for your own essay—especially if you’d like to disagree with their thesis or one of their points; some of the essay questions point you to internet sources (usually other primary texts available online). However, you must document any and all borrowed material according to MLA style. Please do not use other internet sources to “get ideas” for your essay—think for yourself! Remember to quote and interpret passages from your source text frequently. See your course-pack for additional advice.

Please also remember that one requirement of this assignment is that you meet with the instructor or with a writing tutor to go over a full draft of the essay. Failing to do so will cost a full letter grade.

Late papers are always penalized unless you strike a bargain with me BEFORE the due date. If you are late to class, your essay is also late.For each day an essay is late, I will lower the final grade of the essay the equivalent of a + or - (.33 on a 4 point grading scale).

START EARLY!You will need time to review your class notes and to reread the text. See the material in your course pack for a review of the basic principles of good writing and how to write about literature.

Douglass – March 26th

1.     One of the first things Frederick Douglass tells us about himself is that he doesn’t know who his father was, that his mother died when he was very young, and that he hardly recognized his biological siblings as relatives. In your essay, discuss Douglass’s attempts at replacing these foundational family relationships. What potential father or mother figures appear in the novel? Who might we qualify as new brothers and sisters? What, finally, can we say about Douglass’s search for relationship? Is he finally successful, or not? Be sure to explain the significance of your findings.

2.     In his preface to the Narrative, William Lloyd Garrison approves of the author’s "manliness." Throughout the Narrative, Douglass himself gives constant attention to his desire to not only prove that he is human but also to prove that he is a "man." What assumptions about gender (gender = what sort of expected cultural behaviors make a person masculine or feminine) are revealed by a close reading of the Narrative? In other words, what does it mean to be a "man" (or to be "womanly"—cf. his description of Sophia Auld)? In the process of writing your essay, show how Douglass uses these assumptions to help him make his point about slavery (remember to identify the point you think Douglass is trying to make).

3.     We have been talking in class about the tension between self and community that is often a feature of American literature (and American politics). How does Douglass represent himself in relation to community? In your essay, you will have to define the various communities that Douglass identifies in his text. To what degree is he a part of these communities; to what degree is he isolated from them. You will probably not have space to address all of them in your essay; either select one or a small, coherent group that allows you to build an argument. You might consider whether Douglass’s relation to community changes with time or location.

4.     In addition to his own slave narrative, Frederick Douglass also narrates parts of the lives of his fellow slaves. Select a group of other slave stories that somehow fit together (such as those Douglass tells about women slaves) and explain the role those stories play in his own narrative. You might consider: How does his use of others’ stories affect his own narrative? Why does he choose to include them? Are they rhetorically effective in helping him make his claim? Or What do these stories help us understand about Douglass’s own experience?

Iron Mills/Civil War – March 30th

1.     Read Thoreau’s essay “Slavery in Massachusetts” (including in the volume you purchased for the course). How does Thoreau use the term slavery as part of his rhetoric? How does he use the idea of slavery? How does he define (or redefine) slavery. What are the implications of his use of the term in this essay?

2.     How does Lincoln employ “domestic” metaphors of home, relation, and family in one or more of his speeches? What might have been the strategy behind using this kind of language to talk about issues of national importance? (If you like, you can also analyze Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech as part of your argument.)

3.     Read Thoreau’s essay “Slavery in Massachusetts” (including in the volume you purchased for the course). How does Thoreau use the term slavery as part of his rhetoric? How does he use the idea of slavery? How does he define (or redefine) slavery. What are the implications of his use of the term in this essay? If you like, you can compare his use of the rhetoric of Slavery with that of Patrick Henry.

4.     Write an essay discussing the ways in which John Brown models his letters from prison after those of the Apostle Paul. What are the rhetorical effects of this modeling? How should we understand and evaluate this rhetorical choice? You may view more letters at John Brown’s Trial.

5.     How does Davis employ art as a central theme in this short story? You might start by cataloging all the manifestations of art and artistry in the story. What is the power and purpose of art—what does it do? Why does Hugh sculpt, and what do his sculptures reveal? Is art seen as truthful, redemptive, revolutionary, inadequate, something else?

6.     Offer an extended interpretation of one (or a coherent group) of the following key symbols in “Life in the Iron Mills”: color, the river, fire, light and darkness. How does this symbolism support the main argument(s) of the story?

7.     Write an essay focused on the role nature plays in the story.How is the natural world depicted? Why is this? How does it add to Davis’ argument?

8.     “Life in the Iron Mills” was published in 1861, the same year the Civil War started.Davis makes several allusions to slavery in her short story.Identify these allusions and suggest how they enhance and/or detract from her argument about industrial labor.If you like, you can use George Fitzhugh’s critique of Northern labor practices as a touchstone for evaluating Davis’s argument.Do you think she would agree with him about “Northern wage slavery?”

Liberating Women – April 13th

1.     Compare ’s view of the solitude of the self with Thoreau’s transcendentalist vision of the self. How closely does her notion reflect transcendentalist ideals? Is her view of the self a feminine, a masculine, or a gender-neutral view? Why does it matter?

2.     In what way(s) is Gilman making the same arguments in her short story as Stanton makes in the Declaration of Sentiments? You do not have to cover the whole Declaration—just select pertinent points of comparison.

3.     Examine Sojourner Truth’s use of Biblical language and imagery to liberate women. One option you might consider is comparing Sojourner Truth’s representation of Eve with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s argument in her notes to accompany Genesis 1-2 in The Woman’s Bible.

4.     Compare Sojourner Truth’s view of women’s empowerment (especially that of black women) with Hurston’s short story, “Sweat.” You might consider, for example, the role that religion plays in each story.

5.     Eve in and out of the Garden.Several of our authors this semester have drawn on the story of the Garden of Eden in order to make their point. In your essay, consider allusions to the story of Adam and Eve and the images of we’ve encountered this semester. Compare and/or contrast two (or more) author’s use of these biblical allusions in terms of how they represent relations between men and women: Thoreau, Alcott, Sojourner Truth, Hurston, Gilman. As you prepare your essay, be sure to read the Genesis account and think about its meaning. How do these authors understand, re-present, and/or reinterpret the story of and the human Fall? How do they understand the character of Eve? Be sure to explain the significance of the similarities and differences you discover among the authors you’ve chosen.

6.     Focus your essay on the qualities of “The Yellow Wallpaper” which resemble a horror or ghost story. You’ll want to set up your essay by defining the key elements of the ghost or horror story for your reader (note that ghost stories and horror stories may be defined differently).Is “The Yellow Wallpaper” in fact a horror or a ghost story? Explain the significance of your answer in terms of the story’s argument (this will be your thesis).Why use this genre to argue for women’s rights?

Cold War Essay – April 27th

1.     How do Kennedy and Reagan use references to the American Revolution and other moments in the American past to bolster their arguments? How are the founding documents, including the Declaration and Constitution, made newly relevant in the context of the Cold War?

2.     One method of argumentation is to ascribe a particular ethos to the opposing side.How do Reagan and Kennedy depict their adversaries on the world stage? How do these depictions facilitate the argument they are making? If the Cold War is a war of ideas, values, and ideals, as Reagan suggests, how are these ideas, values, and ideals depicted? If you like, you can consider how Kennedy and Reagan represent America and American values in contrast to those of their adversaries.

3.     Where do these speeches fall on the continuum between Militaristic and Peace speeches?Would you argue they are fundamentally one or the other, or a bit of both?Do they threaten or promise, or both?How would you classify them and why?You might focus on the images of/references to war (and the atomic bomb) and to the blessings of peace in these speeches as a way to get a handle on the text.

4.     How do these speeches posit freedom as a universal agenda, something that is not just an American value, but which must, by right, spread around the globe to every nation?As you analyze how the speakers make this argument, consider the advantages and/or disadvantages of this argument for America and for other nations.

As you write, consider whether you see any important similarities or differences between the two presidents’ speeches that should be noted in your thesis or in your conclusion.If you like, you can also use JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner

” speech (1963), his “American University Speech” (1963), or Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech (1983).If you use at least one additional speech, you may focus on either Kennedy or Reagan in your essay.

Ceremony Essay – May 4th

1.     Take one of the primary symbolic structures of the book (for instance the color blue and/or yellow, the spotted cattle, Spider Woman, ) and analyze what purpose that symbol serves in the book--how does it work to connect characters, forward the plot, represent a layer of meaning etc?