As the title implies, this short work is the narrative of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave. He wrote it by himself, a significant fact in that his prose is so eloquent and his pathos so powerful that it seems impossible for a former slave to have composed it. In this short autobiography, Douglass recounts his life as a slave, and details some of the horrors and atrocities perpetuated on slaves by their fiendish overseers, most of whom Douglass portrays as downright evil. More than just a narrative of his life, Douglass also gives an account of how the desire to be free grew and began to burn within his bosom, and how he grew to hate that horrible institution. Above all, this is a story of a slave learning that he is, in fact, a human being.
The significance of this book cannot be overestimated. In it, Douglass effectively dispels a number of popular myths about slaves and slaveholders, and forever changes the way the reader (especially one who lived while slavery still existed) looks at slavery. The theme of this book is very simple: slavery is wrong. It is evil, it is cruel, and, despite what many people thought at the time, the slaves know how cruel it is. Douglass cites several examples of the horrible treatment slaves received, one of them being separation of families. "It is a common custom...to part children from their mothers at a very early age" So it was with Douglass and his own mother.
Douglass writes in a very eloquent style, and this contributes to the power of this work. Many people who thought blacks were inferior in intelligence were shown to be sadly mistaken with the coming of Frederick Douglass, a man both educated and refined. It may be said that the book is not entirely fair, for it is decidedly anti-slavery, but it is undoubtedly true for most cases nonetheless. Most of the overseers in Douglass's narrative are demonic and sadistic, but when a good overseer comes along (such as Freeland), he is fair in his treatment of him.
One can imagine the fuel this book gave to the abolitionist fire, and it is not difficult to see why Douglass had such an impact on both North and South. This is, in my opinion, a definitive work, in that it shows the horrible institution of slavery in all its barbaric nature, and does it from a firsthand point of view, that of a former slave. This book was a tremendous contribution, both for the light it shed on slavery in general, and for proving that blacks were not intellectually inferior by nature, but instead were "transformed into...brute[s]" at the hands of their overseers.
This is a great book, essential for anyone wanting to study the Civil War era or wanting to gain a firmer understanding of slavery.