The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) is the first of the three autobiographical accounts by Douglass. It has much of the quality of a Victorian novel, such as Dickens' David Copperfield, which begins with the announcement "I am born." Douglass' account begins in much the same way. The narrative focuses on Douglass' early life as a slave. It is, in essence, a bildungsroman about the education of Douglass both in the ways of slavery as well as of freedom. The narrative is structured around Douglass' experiences with a succession of masters, some of them cruel and severe, others kinder and more moderate, at least in comparison. Douglass eventually came to realize that even the kindest, most enlightened of owners does not mitigate the pain of enslavement. The narrative offers a succession of episodes, many of them violent and brutal, that detail Douglass' own experiences as well as those of other slaves he knew. His relationship with his mother, whom he met only four or five times, was practically non-existent, as was his relationship with several brothers and sisters. He did not know his father, though it is possible (and Douglass suspected as much) that his father was one of his owners. The wife of one of his owners began teaching him his alphabet. When her husband warns her against teaching slaves to read, she stops, but Douglass resolves to learn how to read on his own. He also taught himself to write. He otherwise educated himself through surreptitious reading and through conversation with white boys his own age whom he met on the streets of Baltimore. He taught groups of slave how to read. He organized one group of fellow slaves in an escape attempt that failed when another slave betrayed them. A second attempt to escape was successful, and he made his way first to New York City and then, with the assistance of a New York lawyer, to Massachusetts, where he learned that being a freedman did not mean freedom from racism. In Massachusetts he discovered his abilities as a speaker at an abolitionist's meeting. To ensure he would not be captured and returned to slavery, a group of abolitionists bought his freedom.
The narrative is vigorously and earnestly written, replete with details, fully dimensional characterizations, and moral fervor. It became an important document in the history of American abolitionism and helped inform Americans about the conditions of slavery. It is one of the leading American slave narratives.