Nabokov’s Criteria on Douglass Narrative
This is the first draft of an analysis essay based on Vladimir Nabokov’s criteria on what makes a good writer. Since I read the PDF version of Douglass’ narrative rather than the physical book, the pages cited may not match up with what many others have written in their own essays. This is rather rough considering that I have always had trouble with making my essays flow. I’d like to be able to develop my ideas in my writing more in order to make my essays clearer to read also.
According to Vladimir Nabokov, there are “three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter” (Nabokov 1036). A good writer, or, “major” writer combines all three of these perspectives, but the enchanter must be the one that is most predominant within him. With Nabokov’s criteria applied onto the narrative of Frederick Douglass, Douglass may be successful in conveying the storyteller and teacher, but he is unable to be a successful enchanter.
The reader looks to the role of the storyteller “for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time” (Nabokov 1036). Douglass is somewhat able to portray the storyteller as he is able to emotionally engage me with his story, even at the very beginning I felt myself sympathize with Douglass’ past as he described his experiences as a slave unable to even know his age because of “never having seen any authentic record containing it” (16). He has also described witnessing the awful treatment other slaves have received, one experience in particular I found myself in horror of as he described an old master of his by the name of Captain Anthony brutalizing an aunt of Douglass by whipping “her naked back till she was literally covered with blood” (19). One other example where I found myself particularly engaged was when Douglass wrote of a confrontation he had with another former master named Covey. The situation between the two escalated to the point it became physical, and Douglass’ “resistance was so entirely unexpected that Covey was taken all aback. He trembled like a leaf” (72). I genuinely rooted for Douglass and was excited about his resistance and fearlessness.
Another point Nabokov makes about being a major writer is that the writer must also be a teacher. This is a perspective that Douglass portrays very well, or so it seems. Nabokov asks, “Can anyone be so naïve as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels?” (Nabokov 1032).
Truthfully, Frederick Douglass does provide some direct knowledge and simple facts as Nabokov says teachers do provide, but the reader does not truly learn about the time and places in history Douglass, but rather the reader only learns about the time and places as Douglass observed them.
Finally, the trait that makes a great writer is his ability to be “a great enchanter” (Nabokov 1036). Nabokov considers this “the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems” (Nabokov 1036). I have noticed that Douglass writes in a way that gives me the impression that he may have been a blunt person, as his writing at times is quite direct, which makes him very easy to understand, such as when he speaks very strongly against slaveholders who attempt to use Christianity to justify their practice of slavery. Douglass describes his great unhappiness to “not only belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists” (78). His writing is also very detailed, and conveys his emotions clearly such as when he describes his feeling when he observed sailboats sailing around Chesapeake Bay and he contemplated his life and the awful conditions he lived in, describing the sails as ghosts meant to terrify and torment him with thoughts of his “wretched condition” (66). Despite all of this, Douglass was still unable to thoroughly enthrall me with his writing, and I was still left with desiring much more