Brilliant and to a large degree self-taught, Douglass personified intellectual activism; he possessed a sincere concern for the uses and consequences of ideas. Both his people's struggle for liberation and his individual experiences, which he envisioned as symbolizing that struggle, provided the basis and structure for his intellectual maturation. As a representative American, he internalized and, thus, reflected major currents in the contemporary American mind. As a representative Afro-American, he revealed in his thinking the deep-seated influence of race on Euro-American, Afro-American, or, broadly conceived, American consciousness. He sought to resolve in his thinking the dynamic tension between his identities as a black and as an American.
Martin assesses not only how Douglass dealt with this enduring conflict, but also the extent of his success. An inveterate belief in a universal and egalitarian humanism unified Douglass's thought. This grand organizing principle reflected his intellectual roots in the three major traditions of mid-nineteenth-century American thought: Protestant Christianity, the Enlightenment, and romanticism. Together, these influences buttressed his characteristic optimism.
Although nineteenth-century Afro-American intellectual history derived its central premises and outlook from concurrent American intellectual history, it offered a searching critique of the latter and its ramifications. How to square America's rhetoric of freedom, equality, and justice with the reality of slavery and racial prejudice was the difficulty that confronted such Afro-American thinkers as Douglass.
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Martin succeeds in covering all major aspects of the 'mind' and persona that Douglass presented to the world. He is particularly good on Douglass's cultivation of the image of himself as hero, self-made man, and exemplar of the American success myth. . . . Martin's account of his thought clearly shows that the white world both attracted and repelled him, as did what he perceived to be the world of most blacks. He accepted Euro-American culture and values but was bitterly angry at whites for not living up to what he took to be their own ideals. He identified with the political struggles of blacks but could be contemptuous of the way most blacks actually lived and thought. What Martin calls his 'ageless and transcendent humanism' was in part an effort to submerge such cultural tensions in a search for timeless truths that obliterated race.George M. Fredrickson, New York Review of Books