Writing Across Lines: Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Charles Dickens in the Black Atlantic

Clare Frances Elliott*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In 1846-7, Frederick Douglass crossed the Atlantic on a tour of Britain and Ireland. He returned to the US a free man, having had his manumission secured for £150, money raised by the Richardsons—a Quaker family of anti-slavery activists—in Newcastle upon Tyne. In speeches given on this tour, he referred admiringly to Charles Dickens, his favourite author, and encouraged audiences to read Dickens’s chapter on slavery in American Notes (1842). A little earlier, in 1844, Douglass had shared a stage with Emerson at an anti-slavery address in the US and he intersected with Emerson on the abolition circuit through shared acquaintances and friends and through print. Douglass was tracking what Emerson said about slavery in his diaries, while Emerson alluded to Douglass as ‘the anti-slave’ in his address on ‘The Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies’ (1844), delivered in Concord. Offering a close examination of Douglass, Emerson, and Dickens, and their transatlantic exchange of ideas, I move away from the usual Anglo-American study of influence to offer new readings of all three writers in an effort to reinstate the intricate interplay of transatlantic literary and cultural movements surrounding abolition. By foregrounding Douglass, my argument identifies new textual crossovers and transracial connections that can occur in the imaginative realm of literature, freed as it is, at least in part, from the oppressions of the world from which it is produced. I freshly situate all three writers in an inclusive triangulation, arguing that Douglass’s writing transcends the limitations of his time, in which he imagines, as part of a transatlantic literary network, a radical vision of racial equality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-57
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Transatlantic Studies
Issue number1
Early online date8 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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