Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass

Maria Diedrich, Author Hill & Wang $35 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8090-1613-6
Based on admittedly meager sources (a fragment of an 1874 letter from Douglass, Assing's letters to friends and relatives and the preface to her translation of Douglass's autobiography), Diedrich presumes that the 28-year friendship of German journalist Ottilie Assing and married abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was a love affair. Styling herself as Germany's ""Negro expert,"" Assing ""enjoyed the spotlight of scandal,"" according to Diedrich. She wrote and traveled in the U.S. after having been ostracized in Germany as a ""half-breed"" whose Jewish father converted to Christianity, believing that her genius would uplift America's underdeveloped cultural scene. Although envisioning herself as egalitarian, Assing told friends she meant to ""introduce readers to highly educated darkies""; in writing about Douglass, Diedrich argues, she ""carefully avoided any physical feature or character trait that might denote difference,"" presenting Douglass as ""the ideal personification of the classical Western orator."" Manuscript revisions in the Douglass Papers in Assing's handwriting indicate she might have served as his secretary, but none of her letters to Douglass survive; she also left instructions that all her letters from Douglass should be destroyed immediately upon her death. When Douglass remarried another woman after becoming a widower, Assing killed herself. Diedrich's at times ponderous prose style may be intended to evoke the rigid class, race and gender conventions of the 19th century, but her expansive rendering of 19th-century Europe and America more than makes up for it. Illustrations not seen by PW. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/31/1999
Release date: 06/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 512 pages - 978-0-8090-6686-5
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