Monday, November 14, 2011

The Problem With Assing

I've debated about writing this post since it comes off as a review of Maria Diedrich's Love Across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999) and I don't intend to review it. This is considered a pretty important book, and, as they say on The Wire, when you go after the king, you best not miss. I'm not sure that I won't miss just yet. I don't have all of the evidence to make the necessary conclusions about it or about Assing and Douglass. I am just having problems with the book as I re-read it while trying to place Assing in my own work; and in reading the book yet again I am finding that I question the premise of the work, the methods and interpretations of the research, and -- most importantly -- the overall significance of Assing herself.

This is a dazzling book. By “dazzling” I mean that it raises a very provocative prospect that can distract the reader from some very significant problems in the work. As you read the book, you think, "wow! I didn't know this! This is fascinating!" As you read the book again, you think, "wait a minute. Something is not quite right about that." At least I did. The biggest problem that is "not quite right" is that the book takes as a foregone conclusion that Douglass and Assing were “soul mates” [p. 288] constantly in search of “new beginnings” [passim – with quotes] away from the United States. The author doesn't show her work in how she got to the conclusion that this affair was a sexual affair, she doesn't discuss how she deduced that and interrogated that deduction and then come to that conclusion. The conclusion is just there as an accepted fact that guides everything afterward.

Thus, everything that Assing and Douglass say or do is motivated by or interpreted only as furthering that relationship. Thus, Assing moves from New York City to Hoboken, NJ, to have a place to meet with Douglass, not because she is quite poor at that point and a boarding house Hoboken might be a less expensive place to live. She moves from Hoboken to Washington, D.C., during Reconstruction again to be near Douglass, not to (or not also to)be near the center of political action as a political journalist.

Such real, practical considerations are ignored elsewhere, too, and with greater implications. If this affair went on for two decades, at least half of which were before Assing entered an age for menopause, and during which she stayed with the Douglasses for months on end, why did she not get pregnant? Where, in fact, did they have sex? Under the same roof as Douglass’s wife and children – and later in laws and grandchildren? Under the boarding house roof where her landlady and landlords were raising children? Why was it not brought up in Louisa and Nathan Sprague’s lawsuit against Douglass – or by anyone at all? The Garrisonians who made such gossip of Julia Griffths only a year before Assing showed up make no mention of Assing at all (and they were as gossipy as a clique of 12-year-olds). No alternate explanations are explored nor practicalities considered. All the reader receives are contradictory dismissals that the landlady and landlords were German and liberal, and therefore exempt from American middle class sensibilities, that the Douglass family – in laws included – were forced to accept whatever Douglass imposed on them (likely, but still not satisfying), and that no one talked about the affair because everyone wanted to protect the movement as a whole and, besides, no one ever visited the Douglasses anyway.

Part of the problem in questioning this interpretation has to do with the primary source for the relationship, which is the correspondence between Assing and her sister Ludmilla. These letters are written in German and held by a Polish repository. Since most American scholars who would be interested in these documents would most likely not have either the language skills or the means to read these letters, they must rely upon the author’s interpretation of them, including the quotations in the text. Yet, the most provocative statements receive no quotations nor citations.

For instance, at the end of the Civil War, “No longer observed and watched, he [Douglass] kwould finally be empowered to solve his domestic problems, and her [Assing’s] letters to her sister Ludmilla document that there was not the slightest doubt in Assing that this could only mean separation from Anna Murray and legalization of their liaison. Frederick Douglass had liberated his race; it was time for him to liberate himself – for Ottilie Assing and their love.” (p. 255) Why not show an example that documents this certainty? Why not cite a source for the entire paragraph in which this appears – or the paragraph before, or the paragraph after? Are the statements about Douglass being “empowered to solve his domestic problems” a projection or summation of Assing’s attitude or the author’s interpretation of the situation? If the latter, then that is patently untrue, and the author even shows how untrue in the next chapter.

That passage also is an example of another problem in the use of sources. Assing’s is the only description of this relationship. There are, of course, clear reasons that Douglass’s family might excise her from his and their own records, but she appears in no one else’s correspondence, including Douglass’s enemies. Furthermore, the most telling descriptions – of which there are very few quoted – appear in her correspondence specifically with her sister Ludmilla, with whom she had a frequently acrimonious rivalry. The quotation about her near marital relationship with Douglass, “The last seventeen years being not married and still lining in a union of the deepest mutual affection, more firmly found than many who are married, without the faintest hope that it might be different, and kept apart by being incapable of valuing or giving love” came in a letter after Ludmilla’s marriage and can be read as part of sisterly competition (“You’re getting married? Ah, well, I would but I can’t because of the cruel world, and our relationship has lasted sooo much longer than any of yours”).Ottilie, after all, fancied herself a libertine, but Ludmilla was; Ottilie seemed to want marriage, but her sister got it. Then, when Ludmilla’s marriage fell apart, Assing wrote, “if one stands in so intimate a relationship with a man as I do with Douglass one comes to know facets of the whole world, of men and women, which otherwise remain closed, especially if it is a man who had seen so much of the world and whom so many women have loved,” which perhaps could be gloating (“oh, poor thing, I’m so happy that my very desirable man – who I’ve been with longer than you ever have with a man – is faithful”).

Assing’s bragging about her own influence over Douglass’s work, even insisting that she wrote his columns that were read throughout Washington, are in the context of Ludmilla’s greater success as a writer. One long quoted passage that opens a chapter, shows Assing bragging that she has converted Douglass to atheism, and yet that was patently untrue and Assing was either lying to her correspondent or fooling herself. In other words, Assing is not a particularly reliable source, and the question of her reliability is not fully analyzed. In fact, her version of events is fully and wholly accepted, then also projected onto Douglass, without questioning that Douglass’s behavior clearly does not align entirely with Assing’s own interpretation. His ambivalence is explained by his commitment to his cause, not to a perhaps less flattering – for either her or for him – explanation.

Which brings me to my real problem that cannot be solved by reading this book: what is going on in this relationship? I originally thought that I could rely upon this book. My careful reading of it came from my need to examine the pieces of her argument to see how this one relationship fit in with the rest, and to find the sources that might help me see other dimensions in this relationship that would help me with the whole project. Instead, what I found was serious problems with this book as a whole, and that I almost need to follow in the author’s footsteps to see what is really in those sources. In fact, I need to follow in Assing’s footsteps – Douglass’s as well – in order to measure her reliability. So, I’m contacting the archive with her papers to get copies or make a trip, and will have to muddle through the script and translation.

What I am thinking here is that Assing was very deeply taken with Douglass, but him not so much with her. I think he got something out of the relationship with her – she was a journalist, he was an editor, she had connections on the European continent, perhaps she was a kind listener, clearly she would have been a willing booty-call (or “friends with benefits” as the young folks say – and if they did that sort of thing in those days – and again, what kind of birth control was she using?) – but he wasn’t deeply in love with her and certainly wasn’t going to follow her to Europe or leave his wife, or really go out of his way for her. That, right now, is my hypothesis that I have to test through rigorous research in the documents.


  1. I'd be interested to hear the results of your further research. You make a good point in that, if they were indeed having an intimate affair back then, and for so many years, it seems likely Ottilie would have gotten pregnant. Thanks also for pointing out that the author of Across Color Lines shows no evidence of her premise that they were lovers. Though Ottilie's suicide after Douglass remarried to his younger secretary (and not to her) is a strong indication that her involvement was more than professional.

  2. Hello Nancy,
    Thank you for your interest!

    The book will be out next February, so all of the information will be there.

    On Assing's suicide: it was only coincidental with his re-marriage. She had actually been diagnosed with breast cancer, which was incurable in those days, and the tumor had grown large enough to be visible to the morgue doctors. You can find more on it here:

  3. I agree with your general assessment of Diedrich's book. As for "he wasn’t deeply in love with her" -- aren't there (infinitely) many permutations of important and vital human relations other than the Romantic or "economic" ones that are dragged in to do the heavy lifting? Twenty-eight years (or however many it was) of "kind listening" has a meaning of its own... Btw, what did the "border state" metaphor (the code name according to Diedrich, as I recall, between Ottile and Frederick for his wife) really mean??!!! Looking forward to your book!