February 14, 2010

Frederick Douglass and a Valentine, Emily Dickinson and a Snake

It is unknown exactly when Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County, Maryland. He was, after all, a slave at the time, and record-keeping was hardly a priority. He knew little about his own family or, as he put it, "The reader must not expect me to say much of my family. Genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves."

As for his birth date, he wrote, "From certain events... I suppose myself to have been born in February, 1817." Others suggested February 1818 (the more likely year). Douglass adopted February 14 as his birthday in honor of a visit from his mother in 1825 when she gave him a heart-shaped ginger cake and called him "Valentine." He never saw her again.

Despite a law against doing so, Douglass was taught the alphabet at 12 years old. Around the same time, he began to recognize his own concern for civil rights. At about 20 years old, he escaped from slavery, traveling to Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York in less than 24 hours. He went on to tell his story as an advocate for abolitionism and in several autobiographies. His first, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845. The compelling story was an instant success, going through multiple editions in only a few years. He published My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855 and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1892.

48 or 49 years after Douglass's presumed birthdate, a young woman in Amherst, Massachusetts published a poem. The front page of the February 14, 1866 issue of the Springfield Daily Republican included the first publication of a poem labeled "The Snake" (possibly a direct response to John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barefoot Boy"). It is one of only a handful of known poems which Emily Dickinson saw published in her lifetime.

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, — did you not?
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun, —
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.


  1. Rob, I loved both parts of this. The Dickinson poem is a gem. Loves the snake but is scared of it. I had no idea she did not see her poems published in her lifetime. Thank you for this.

  2. Rob, I just had to revisit your site to reread the Dickinson poem. Love it.

  3. http://vjesci.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/east-of-eden-old-house/