JANUARY 14, 2010
Edmund Fuller's A Star Pointed North is an imaginative reconstruction of Frederick Douglass' career, beginning with his first unsuccessful attempt to escape from slavery and ending with his visit to his former master as a US Marshal. The novel follows the outlines of Douglass' own Life and Times, a classic American autobiography which ranked with Uncle Tom's Cabin as a force in shaping anti-slavery opinion.
A Star Pointed North projects Douglass escaping from slavery in his twenties and shortly after becoming a friend of the Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrion and Wendell Phillips and a brilliant anti-slavery leader. He is mobbed; he becomes a crusading fugitive in England; publishes a militant newspaper; operates in the Underground Railroad; plots guerrilla warfare against the South with John Brown; and engages in historically crucial arguments with Lincoln. There is an interracial love affair.
On its deeper level, however, A Star Pointed North is a perceptive chart of the inner conflict by which Douglass rose from slavery to become an American hero. Fuller recognizes that Douglass encountered most of the problems faced by Negro leaders today; that indeed, he inhabited a world similar to the one lived in by our liberals who find even their most carefully conceived plans sadly inadequate and destined for compromise.
Reaching the North during a period when the old guides to action were crumbling, Douglass set out to discover the bedrock of freedom beneath the chaos. No longer a slave, and yet a Negro; no citizen, but a most controversial public figure, he was a man without recognized status. Thus all his life he had to fall back upon what was fundamental in his experience, remembering that the key to his basic identity lay neither in books, nor in white men's minds, but in the slavery-scars on his back.
Only by clinging to this basic reality could Douglass maintain his integrity—not against his enemies (which was easy) but against the unconscious condescension of his white friends. Fuller depicts him breaking with the bitter Garrison because he is convinced that slavery, though a live moral issue, had to be destroyed through political action; he shows him withdrawing from his plot with John Brown when Brown mistakenly assumed that the slaves would spontaneously join the attack at Harper's Ferry and risk death for the freedom they little understood.
Douglass faced the unknown nature of freedom, not as a "slave" or as a "Negro," but as a man to whom America held forth her promise without reservation; he refused to bow to those who denied it to him. Few freer Negro personalities have emerged in America. For Douglass, as Fuller shows, escaped in more than a physical sense; he encountered the "North" of sensibility, intellect and integrity before the steel barrier of legal Jim Crow could be lowered to narrow the dream of freedom in the Negro's heart. Though he was a fugitive slave, the psychological distance between himself and his white colleagues was not so great as it is between contemporary Negroes and their white allies; nor were compromise, fear and hypocrisy such a normal part of Negro-white relationships.
Douglass has never slipped completely from our historical consciousness, but attempts have been made to discourage that attitude of forthright manhood and democratic responsibility in Negroes of which he is our most compelling symbol. Indeed, thousands of twentieth-century Negroes have been educated in schools named in his honor without being told who he was or for what value she stood. Since his time the most favored Negro leaders have been men of compromise. And while young Negroes have been taught to emulate Booker T. Washington—told that Washington was the first Negro to take tea at the White House—few know that Douglass was the first to approach an American President in the role of a far-visioned and outspoken statesman.
Yet for Negroes who have refused to make the economic, psychological and intellectual compromises which an acceptance of second-class citizenship necessitates, and for whites who have joined most wholeheartedly in the fight for full Negro equality, the memory of Douglass has persisted. In his life he foreshadowed the pattern of Negro-white participation in the democratic struggle. He fought against the forces of disunity, both within himself and within his white co-workers. He knew that Negroes could contribute both emotion and intellect to democracy; he insisted that the Abolitionists recognize his power to analyze his experience as well as articulate it dramatically as propaganda.
Southern-born Edmund Fuller has been fired by more than the romance of Douglass' story. His hero is no bloodless myth-figure, but the heroic and human individual familiar to those who know Douglass' autobiography. Fuller has not only skillfully recreated the past; he has rediscovered a valuable guide to the present.
Ralph Ellison, a free-lance writer living in New York, is now at work on a novel.