Midwife's Tale," by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and "Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," by Frederick Douglass. Specifically, it will show how these individuals lived in very different social and cultural worlds, including Ballad's private world and Douglass' very public world, but it will also show they had more in common than it might seem.
TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS
It goes without saying these two people lived entirely different lives. Martha Ballard grew up in New England, surrounded by her family. She was born in 1735, and died in 1812. She witnessed the American Revolution, and helped at the birth of over 800 children. She knew her mother and father, and was surrounded by relatives who lived in the Kennebec area. Frederick Douglass on the other hand, only saw his mother five or six times before she died when he was seven. He was separated from her when he was very young, and he never knew his father.
The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father (Douglass 2).
Martha Ballard began keeping her diary when she was 50 years old and continued almost until her death. She lived in a small town on the Kennebec River in Maine, and although she traveled extensively in her area, she rarely traveled outside of the Kennebec area. From the diary entries it is easy to tell where Martha spent most of her time, it was taking care of her home, six children, and her midwife's practice. Her life is filled with the mundane every day tasks of running a household, from "combing flax" to "planting peas," and "drinking tea."
To understand Martha's world we must approach it on its own terms, neither as a golden age of household productivity nor as a political void from which a later feminist consciousness emerged. Martha's diary reaches to the marrow of eighteenth-century life (Ulrich 32-33).
Indeed, Martha's diary is an intimate glimpse into the daily life of a family in the 18th century, from what they ate, to what diseases decimated the population, to how hard they worked day after day. In contract, Douglass' autobiography is the broader story of his life, and his fight for equality and freedom. His early life as a slave is chronicled, and the excesses and violence performed by the owners is shown in graphic detail, but the intimate daily details are not part of his narrative, they do not have a place there.
Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood (Douglass 14).
These two writers deal with death very differently, which of course is a result of their backgrounds and professions. Martha is distressed when she loses a patient, in fact, she fretted over the "first such instance I ever saw & the first woman that died in Child bed which I delivered" (Ulrich 170), while Douglass notes it is not illegal to kill a slave in the South. "I speak advisedly when I say this, -- that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community" (Douglass 14). Martha works to save her patients, while Douglass seems to have seen more death as a slave than Martha saw in all the years of her practice. These situations do not alter how they look at death; both writers see it as horrible and unnecessary.
Both writers also have a deep spirituality, and express their thanks to the Lord often in their writing. Martha often thanks God when she is successful in delivering a difficult child, or making a demanding journey to a home to deliver a child.
The religious language in Martha Ballard's diary strengthens the affinity with her Puritan progenitors. Dramatizing the dangers of her journey, she both glorified God and gave meaning and dimension to her own life. Mr. Hewins led her horse and Mr. Hains walked beside her, but Providence rescued her from the violence of the spring freshet (Ulrich 7).
Douglass too believes he owes his freedom to God, who has looked out for him during his life.
From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.
These two passages point to the deep religious belief of both Martha and Douglass, and how important religion was at the time. Martha was a product of Puritanical New England, and still followed the rigid moral guidelines set by her ancestors who first colonized the area. She does not approve of the liberal preacher Foster, and must attend church each Sunday, or her absence is duly noted. Douglass does not go into as much detail about his church going, but his reverence is clearly deep and profound. He does not follow the rigid Puritanical religion by the time he writes, but he worships God just the same. Religion and devotion were an integral part of life in early America, and both writers illustrate how important it was in their own lives through their thoughts and words.
Douglass has a problem however with his master's justification by religion of beating his slaves.
I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture - 'He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes'" (Douglass 33).
Douglass in his quiet way questions a religion that would allow such a thing, while Martha never questions her religion, in fact, she does not seem to question much in her life. Things just happen, and as such, life goes on. As the author notes, she "disliked" controversy, and so not much of it made it into the pages of her diary. Douglass however lived with controversy almost every day of his life, and so he not only reported it, he was bound to work against it.
While it is true Ballard lived in a much more private world, she may have been even more involved with the community than Douglass was. She knew all of her neighbors, and had delivered most of their children. Obsessed as she was with detail, she knew the intimate details of her neighbors' lives, and sometimes recorded them, along with her own purchases and payments. "Bot a Shall [shawl?] at 5/6. He made me a present of a muslin apron. I bot at Capt Fillebrowns 5 2/1 pints Brandy, 2/9; 3 puter poringers, 4/6; paper pins, / 10. Total 8/1" (Ulrich 165), and "Mr. Livermore's swine in our field a number of time. I went my self & informd him" (Ulrich 132).
Douglass on the other hand is much more concerned with global and national problems, and much less involved with his local community, although he does make a note of two young slave girls who were mistreated in Baltimore. "Their names were Henrietta and Mary. Henrietta was about twenty-two years of age, Mary was about fourteen; and of all the mangled and emaciated creatures I ever looked upon, these two were the most so" (Douglass 21).
There is a huge difference between the two in their outlook and temperament. Martha rarely speaks of herself, or what she is feeling. Her diary chronicles day-to-day life, but it is not a portrait of the woman, only what she does in life. Douglass on the other hand, is a fiery and passionate person, and his strong personality fills his recollections from the beginning. It is easy to see that he is a young man yearning for something more and wanting to be something other than a man owned by another.