FREDERICK DOUGLASS By William S. McFeely Norton. 465 pp. $24.95

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, the great African-American abolitionist and orator (1818-1895), was a master of self-projection, manipulating the myth of the self-made man as skillfully as did his contemporaries Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Phineas T. Barnum. Douglass celebrated himself through four main versions of his autobiography; thus many readers who encounter William S. McFeely's retelling of his story will be somewhat familiar with the major events of Douglass's life. Born into slavery around 1817, he escaped to the North in 1838, and within two years had achieved stunning success as an abolitionist lecturer. He went on to become a newspaper editor, president of the Freedman's Bank, U.S. minister to Haiti, recorder of deeds, and U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia.

Not all of his undertakings led to success, however. Douglass was extremely embarrassed by the failure of the Freedman's Bank shortly after he assumed its presidency. He was placed in an awkward position while serving as minister to Haiti. Black people everywhere identified passionately with Haiti, the world's first black sovereign republic, and Douglass could not allow himself to be seen as a puppet for American racist expansionism. When he attempted to negotiate for a military base at Mole St. Nicholas and his mission was unsuccessful, whites rebuked him as an inept representative of American interests. But even his failures were somehow transmuted into victories by the alchemy of a brilliant personality and the fact that black America has always had a desperate need for heroes.

While McFeely is certainly to be commended for producing a skilfully written biography that allows black America to have its 19th-century hero, some readers may feel he has played down some of the controversial aspects of Douglass's life and writings. McFeely is too fine a historian simply to have ignored these problems. In fact, he has filled in some of the discreet omissions in the autobiographical legacy of the sainted patriarch. McFeely is aware of the skill with which Douglass manipulated audiences, and readers, and he provides us with considerable information that Douglass saw fit not to reveal. (Most of this was touched on, if not thoroughly exploited, in Benjamin Quarles's still indispensable Frederick Douglass {1948}.) McFeely brilliantly evokes the Douglass persona, giving us a portrait that is admirable and believable. He also presents a Douglass who is "politically correct" for the 1990s, although I suspect that if Douglass were alive today, he would be equally unacceptable to both liberals and conservatives.

McFeely offers new material on Douglass's relationships with black women, white women and white men. A tall, robust, intensely sexual man, Douglass accomplished a great deal in life simply as a result of his magnetic virility. For his escape from slavery he was largely indebted to a black woman, Anna Murray, who became his first wife. McFeely reports the speculation that Anna may have been pregnant with their first child, Rosetta, before the couple left the South. The friendship that developed between the aging Douglass and the young journalist, Ida B. Wells, is engagingly presented in this volume. Wells was one of the few black women who seemed not to resent his second marriage at the age of 66 (after Anna's death) to Helen Pitts, a 46-year-old white woman. McFeely avoids controversy, however, when he smoothes over Douglass's ambivalent feelings toward Sojourner Truth, the dynamic black woman abolitionist who once interrupted one of his speeches to ask him if he thought that God was dead.

McFeely offers some interesting speculations, unfortunately not well documented, on Douglass's likely sexual adventure with Ottila Assing, the German reformer. It has long been known that Assing left Douglass a substantial inheritance after her suicide in 1884. Douglass's relationships with other white women are also mentioned, but McFeely does not mention how Douglass insisted that his second wife resembled him more closely in physiognomy, nor does he mention Douglass's assertion that mulattoes like himself were not really Negroes.

McFeely's discussion of Douglass's relationships with white men is well executed, although his speculations on Douglass' paternity are more difficult to follow than those of such scholars as Allison Davis or Dickson J. Preston. McFeely makes much of Douglass's distaste for the officious and condescending James Buffum, a white American, who controlled Douglass's travelling expenses while touring the British Isles with him in 1845. One contemporary observed in Buffum "an enormous degree of love, affection," which he attributed to a "feminine" element in Buffum's manner "that Douglass does not respect." Douglass's reactions to black people are described with far less detail, however, and this leads to the most serious weakness of the book. McFeely for the most part, portrays Douglass as an exceptional black man, who moved primarily in a world of white men and women. He has not atttempted to situate Douglass within an African-American literary and historical tradition.

McFeely allows Douglass to get away with conspicuous silences regarding his African-American rivals. William Wells Brown, another black abolitionist, reports that Douglass was once interrupted by a heckler who asserted that Douglass's oratorical ability was due to his white ancestry. It happened that Samuel Ringgold Ward, a physically imposing man of unadulterated African ancestry, was in the audience, and rose to acquit himself splendidly. In a work that contains much speculation, there is no pondering of Douglass's reaction when Martin Delany was commissioned a major during the Civil War, while Douglass was ignored and left to brood throughout the great crusade like some black Achilles. Douglass's repudiation of Henry Highland Garnet's call for a slave insurrection at the black convention of 1843 receives scant attention. Completely overlooked is Douglass's sometimes uneasy relationship with Alexander Crummell (1819-1898) the pure African, free-born, Cambridge-educated black nationalist and prominent spokesman of the back-to-Africa movement. His hostile interaction with the black congressman John Mercer Langston is skimmed over. So too are the increasingly critical opinions of Douglass expressed by Crummell and younger black intellectuals.

McFeely appears uncomfortable when trying to address the continuing accusation of many black Americans that Douglass was not sufficiently committed to issues of black pride and self-determination. His pilgrimage to Eygpt and his writings on the claims of the American Negro to a noble Nilotic past were clearly aimed at endowing black American with a lineage noble enough to allow for biological assimilation in America. His belief in racial amalgamation places him in a unique position among black American thinkers of any era. McFeely says remarkably little about opinions such as those Douglass expressed in his 1886 essay "The Future of the Colored Race," where he virtually repudiated any African identity. It was, he said, "only prejudice against the Negro, which calls everyone, however nearly connected with the white race, and however remotely connected with the Negro race, a Negro. The motive is not a desire to elevate the Negro, but to humiliate and degrade those of mixed blood; not a desire to bring the Negro up, but to cast the mulatto and the quadroon down."

McFeely does not discuss how such statements were received by Douglass's contemporaries. He praises Douglass for repudiating "reverse racism" . So too does conservative columnist George Will, in a review of Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character. One may reasonably demand some apppraisal of Douglass's advocacy of a color-blind society based on biological amalgamation and cultural absorption, as the solution to American racial problems. McFeely does not give us this, but he provides, nonetheless a brilliant portrait of a remarkable man. Thoroughly readable, lively and engrossing, this is not a systematic explication of Frederick Douglass's voluminous writings, nor it is the long-awaited "definitive biography," although it is the most comprehensive work on Douglass to date.

Wilson J. Moses, director of Afro-American Studies at Boston University, is the author of the biography "Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent."