Friday, December 10, 2010

Frederick Douglass home invasion

Frederick Douglass home, Anacostia, Washington DC, 14 January 2005

Here's my report written just after my visit on 14 January 2005:

Today I finally got around to a project I've had in mind for a few years: I visited Frederick Douglass' Cedar Hill home in Anacostia, now maintained by the National Park Service. My goal was to attempt to photograph certain objects in Fred's study, particularly busts of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss, both members of the Left Hegelian movement and pivotal figures in the history of German freethought. Strauss' 1835 Leben Jesu marked a turning point in the demythologization of the gospels. Strauss also divided the struggling factions following Hegel into Left, Right, and Center. Feuerbach is best known for his book The Essence of Christianity, translated into English early on (unlike most of other writings of the Young Hegelians, a good number of which remain untranslated to this day) by the novelist George Eliot. Feuerbach argues that religion reflects an inverted world and is a projection of the alienated human essence. This revolutionary concept had an enormous impact, so much so that Feuerbach himself is often forgotten. Feuerbach also had a revolutionary program for philosophy, which didn't get quite so far because of the limitations of his concepts. He considered philosophy (having reached its summit in Hegel), like religion, as a disguised form of theology, and hence requiring a materialist inversion as well. Feuerbach provided Marx with a nascent conception of ideology, and also lives on historically as a precursor to Marx, though he should in no way be limited to this role.

Unfortunately, the National Park Service's Douglass web site neglected to mention that, due to renovation, the entire contents of the house were removed, and so all there is left to look at inside is the wallpaper. Various old black-and-white photos of the missing objects were set up on easels so you could see what you were missing. The only upside is that this is the only opportunity visitors will get to walk through these rooms, which will be roped off once restoration is complete. So the only thing left for me to do was pose for a couple photos in front of Fred's empty bookcase. You can see the bookcase, as well as his study when Fred was using it, in a photo on my web page:

Letter to Ludwig Feuerbach from Ottilie Assing about Frederick Douglass

This brings us to Ottilie Assing. After leaving the house, we stopped in the Visitor's Center to see more artifacts and other items on display. I guess the Park Service wants to keep it clean for the kids, as no mention was made anywhere of one of the most important people in Fred's life, the German-Jewish immigrant Ottilie Assing (an intriguing gerund), Fred's unofficial main squeeze and intellectual influence. There is of course plenty of documentation on Fred's two wives and kids, but poor Ottilie is left out of account. I think she committed suicide after Fred married someone else. Ottilie was a fervent atheist, and claims in a letter to Feuerbach (see web page) that she converted Fred to atheism. Fred was of a skeptical temperament (evinced in remarks about racist churches and complaints about his people's absorption in lodges and mystical cults), but my guess is that she was exaggerating a bit. This is another obscure tidbit of intellectual history that reveals yet again the complex interweaving of human destinies and covert interconnections that bind us all together.

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