“If life is more than breath,
I lived more in one day of freedom,
than in a year of my slave life.” 

 

Frederick Douglass
and the Greatest American Narrative at the Mercantile Library

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), a man of many achievements and great accomplishments as an abolitionist, speaker and writer, journalist and politician,  his great theme being the equality of all peoples regardless of race, gender or beliefs.   By irrepressible determination , Douglass learned to read on his own before escaping to freedom, and famously said, “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom".  St. Louis Mercantile Library Special collections
 
Americana can be defined as first hand narrative—the accounts of great and humble Americans from all walks of life as they experienced the important events of discoveries, settlement on the frontier, and war, among so many other issues of the Nation’s past. Perhaps the greatest Americana narrative of all was Douglass’s; it was certainly one of the most influential ever written with far reaching repercussions. This is the first edition of  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself (Boston, 1845) from the Helen Nash collection, the Mercantile Library’s signature African Americana collection of thousands of works of history, poetry and literature spanning the centuries of Black experience in America
Douglass wrote three influential autobiographies, each depicting a life that was at the center of the dynamic social movements that characterized American history and society.  His narratives are the finest examples of Americana, moving the reader from personal introspection to national advocacy and change.  St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
 
During my 30-plus years in the Library field - indeed even from childhood - I have learned never to underestimate the transformational power and emotional force of great books.  In my graduate history seminar on Indian Captivity Literature I have a unit on other forms of captivity literature which formed a cornerstone genre of American writing for generations—slave narratives.  One of the greatest of these narratives, certainly one of the best written and used as a great exemplary rhetorical model in the cause of Abolition,  was the eloquent  and poetic statement by Frederick Douglass, his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845).  I consider this book one of the cornerstones of American narrative prose, thus one of the greatest works of Americana, along with all the travel narratives, explorations of the land, the conflict of war on the borderlands with Native Americans, and between brothers during the Civil War.  But the great bibliographers of Americana were so preoccupied with the old pathfinders and explorers of the  New World when they wrote their lists of great American books a century ago that sadly, this crucial social narrative by a great man was overlooked and seldom included in the Americana canon. 
 
During my class and with tour groups at the Library I have brought out all the great printed  personal accounts which the Mercantile has  of those persons who were able, before the Civil War, to throw off the chains of bondage as slaves or to fight for freedom and liberty, and write these rare slave narratives, which did so much to change the nation’s conscience in antebellum times.  This one great first edition by Douglass has the power to make students and visitors weep as they hold it in their hands.   Because of that, I have developed a  special readings class on this and a number of the other great  narratives in the cause of personal freedom in our Helen Nash Collection of African Americana.  No one needs to thank me ever in letting them see these great books and allowing them to be handled.  I’m the grateful one.  Very few rare book librarians are ever blessed with seeing the immediate impact of their books in such a personal and poignant way as has happened when readers handle the original works on Nat Turner, Elijah Lovejoy, John Berry Meachum, or Frederick Douglass. 
John Neal Hoover, Executive Director
The Douglass narrative is the great jewel of the Helen Nash Collection at the Mercantile Library, its signature collection of African Americana of thousands of works of history, literature, and poetry spanning the centuries of Black experience in America, formed by a pioneering African American twentieth century pediatrician in St. Louis.  Her collection in turn is augmented by the Library’s holdings of rare books and manuscripts on African American studies which the Mercantile collected over two centuries and still collects to beckon students and scholars of African American history for impactful research projects and publications which seem more relevant as each day unfolds.  From the time of our founder, James Yeatman, to the current day our donors and the Board of Direction of the Mercantile Library have helped create this great collection of record in St. Louis through generous donations and funds, and the dividends these collections provide are evident in the equality, insight, and practical application which scholarship and education give our readers from all walks of life.

nota beneNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself (Boston, 1845)  will be featured in the upcoming, early 2021 exhibition and publication,  A Nation, A City and its First Library: Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years
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