Public vs. Private Life in McCann’s Transatlantic

Our conversation in class on Wednesday about Douglass and the existence of a “hierarchy of struggle” in his work made me think about a theme we often discuss in another English class of mine—public vs. private life. In that class, we often think of public life as how one presents themselves in a political setting, and private life as how they present themselves internally or in a domestic setting. I think this framework really applies for understanding McCann’s portrayal of Douglass. He feels the weight of that contrast between public and private, especially as it relates to his support of the Irish people.

Three passages stood out to me with regard to Douglass’s conception of his public and private life. The first, which we discussed in class, depicts Douglass’s thought process as he is asked about “wage slavery” and Irish oppression after a lecture. He hesitates for a “long silence,” fully considering the weight of his words before he speaks. “He had to be judicious, he knew. There were newspaper reporters scribbling down every word. It would lead back to Britain and America” (65). Even early in his trip to Ireland, he feels the weight of American and English eyes on him. His words are not entirely his own—they belong, at least in part, to the abolitionist cause. By the end of the excerpt we read, Douglass makes up his mind about how to address Irish oppression in his public speaking: “There was only so much he could take upon himself. He had to look to what mattered. … The Irish were poor, but not enslaved” (85). Though this is literally true, ignoring the Irish cause seems insensitive after all he witnessed in his trip to Ireland. We are witnessing Douglass’ attempt to align his public speaking, which focused almost exclusively on slavery, with his private thoughts on the matter. Though he seems genuinely troubled by what he saw in Ireland, he has to “look to what mattered” to make sense of the great suffering in front of him. In this passage, Douglass’ public caution becomes private.

Finally, McCann’s narrative touches on the public vs. private life by highlighting Douglass’s private writing routine, which he imagined to involve using barbells made of the chains of slavery to exercise before he writes. On pg. 81-82, Douglass uses the barbells, then writes a letter to his wife Anna. But, even before he writes, he thinks of the letter’s disposal. “Anna might cherish hearing the letters read to her for an evening or two, but soon enough they would be burned. It gladdened him, really, that the letters would become smoke: it was so much of what happened to one’s own history” (82). Even locked alone in his room, Douglass is thankful for the public vs. private distinction. His letters to his wife would be burned and thus eternally relegated to the private sphere. The public—which includes everyone from his abolitionist colleagues to his previous masters—cannot see everything.

One Reply to “Public vs. Private Life in McCann’s Transatlantic”

  1. This theme of public vs. private life is very interesting in Douglass’ case. Ironically, despite writing an autobiography, he is not completely an open book. He hides many of the struggles he still faces internally so he can be an effective advocate for the struggles of his people.

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