My PhD work follows organically from my Masters thesis: ‘Douglass and Ireland: Rupturing the Monoliths in the Wake of a Transatlantic Voyage.’ I completed my Masters in University College Cork under the supervision of Dr Lee Jenkins.
My PhD subject is Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). He was born an African-American slave and died after a long and successful career as abolitionist lecturer, journalist, editor, writer and diplomat to Haiti. His position of importance amongst African-Americans, both free and slave; his experience living and working with whites, and his international travels ensured several American presidents consulted him in ante- and postbellum America. His remarkable personal journey and his huge corpus of writings has offered scholars an opportunity to interrogate many of the boundaries that were described around slavery, freedom, race and the nation-state.
Within Douglass studies, my thesis topic focuses on one of the boundaries that modern Douglass criticism has ruptured: the nation-state. Douglass has been an important subject within transatlantic studies, as he embodies the triangular nature of the slave trade and he was part of that diaspora, neither American nor free, who compelled scholars to incorporate the Black Atlantic in any serious consideration of nineteenth-century literary, historical and cultural studies.
Frederick Douglass is a relatively recent addition to the American canons of literary and historical greats. Some of the finest work on anti-slavery and abolition was undertaken in order to justify the positions of individual slaves and their writings in the respective canons. Likewise, in the recent past, New Historicism has facilitated the inclusion of the transatlantic dimension in Douglass studies. However, generalisations, hinted at by Douglass and suggested by Douglass scholars, have emerged concerning Douglass and his time in the British Isles; generalisations that are both limited and limiting of Douglass and his hosts.
My work is motivated by archival research and I have spent time in several Irish and British archives and at the Frederick Douglass Papers Project at IU, examining the words and opinions of Douglass’ contemporaries, in particular those not of the mainstream press. During this work, I have found dialogues and correspondences that challenge many of the generalisations that have suggested an uncomplicated relationship with his new, transatlantic setting. Within this aspect of Douglass scholarship, my thesis focuses on Douglass’epistorlary output. He wrote his letters and speeches with a view to publication in the American antislavery press, most notably, Garrison’s Boston Liberator. Many of these letters and speeches have been anthologised at different times during the twentieth century by Woodson (1926), Foner (1950), Taylor (1974) and Blassingame (1979). However, the Frederick Douglass Papers Project based at IUPUI is currently undertaking a more comprehensive anthology of his work.
My thesis looks at Douglass in the transatlantic setting and using some previously unpublished letters, his coming to terms with the meaning of citizenship, in particular American citizenship. I then consider the implications of anthologising his work, and how an anthology can influence our reception of a subject. However, I am also interested in Douglass the individual and I discuss what I perceive as Douglass’ weakest moments while abroad, and how he coped with them.
Using this paradigm, I turn again to Douglass. There are many perspectives to consider in order to appreciate the depth and complexity of the issues that this fugitive and exile negotiated during his transatlantic trip.