Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass

By Maria Diedrich

Hill and Wang. 480 pp. $35

Reviewed by Henry Wiencek

On a summer day in 1856, a 37-year-old German journalist named Ottilie Assing knocked on the door of Frederick Douglass's home in Rochester, N.Y., seeking an interview with the great antislavery leader. That meeting marked the beginning of "an intimate, mutually enriching, but also tragic relationship," as Maria Diedrich writes in Love Across Color Lines, her narrative of the Douglass/ Assing story.

On and off, the African-American abolitionist and the German writer spent 26 years together. Assing passed delightful summers at Douglass's home (despite the apparent disapproval of his wife, Anna, whom Assing despised), and he often stayed at Assing's residence in Hoboken, N.J., taking refuge there when he was a hunted man after John Brown's raid on the Harper's Ferry arsenal. In her articles for German publications, Assing took up the cause of African-American liberation, translated Douglass's second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, and worked closely with him during the Civil War drafting articles and speeches. At the time Assing thought of this exciting, heady work as a partnership of equals, though she later admitted that she had merely been Douglass's "pigtail."

Unlike Douglass's previous friendship with the Englishwoman Julia Griffiths and his subsequent marriage to another white woman, his relationship with Assing escaped the attention of the press. Diedrich quotes the memoirs of the actress Helene von Racowitza, who knew the couple: "Our good Ottilie was . . . entwined in passionate love with the beautiful dark Fred. . . . But she honored his marriage bond." Diedrich assumes, however, despite the absence of solid evidence, that Assing and Douglass did not honor his marriage bond to Anna Murray Douglass but had an intimate sexual relationship. In any case it is clear that Assing was passionately attracted to Douglass and "certain that he would eventually marry her."

Diedrich, professor of American Studies at the University of Munster, has no interest in salacious "did they or didn't they?" speculations. As her title declares, Diedrich is more concerned with explicating the complexities of "love across the color lines." She writes, "Race was central to the way they perceived and approached each other; it was a powerful, eroticizing magnet in their liaison." Assing dreamed of parading her lover through Europe like a trophy: "She was certain that her friends would have been fascinated by that gorgeous mulatto at her side -- by the exotic eroticism of his presence, his oratorical skills, his intellectual brilliance." Pointing out that Assing was half-Jewish, Diedrich says that she reached out to Douglass, whose father was white, "as a white woman with all the privileges of whiteness, yet seasoned with the wisdom of the `half-breed'."

Diedrich asserts that Douglass, far from having broken free of color consciousness, was "torn between two races, tortured by his double consciousness of being both and neither." She sees in him an "ultimate longing for an identification with his father's whiteness." Douglass's love of white women, in Diedrich's view, allowed him "to claim as his the territory from which his father-master had exiled him. He reclaimed a manhood, a virility, a self which . . . he could only perceive as white." If this is so, it points to a violent rupture between Douglass's public and private selves, since he forthrightly and bravely identified himself with the black cause in the public sphere.

Diedrich resists the temptation to cast Assing entirely as a racial heroine, boldly crossing the color line. Although Assing defended race mixing as ennobling and perfecting humanity, she believed in the superiority of whiteness and thought that the benefit of race mixing lay in the whitening of the black race. Diedrich's analysis, which springs from a microscopic reading of the documents left by Assing and Douglass, offers fascinating, compelling insights into the psychology of race. At times, however, the examination becomes a bit too microscopic as Diedrich labors to explicate the subtlest of nuances in the lovers' letters and articles, straining to find significance where there is none or very little. Dutifully, the author recounts in detail dozens of trips hither and thither, the doings and feelings of Assing's relatives and acquaintances, and minor squabbles within the Douglass household. Still, Diedrich's assessment raises interesting questions about the interplay of public persona and private psychology in Douglass's life, and specialists will find much material to ponder in these pages, though the general reader may grow weary of the minutiae of Assing's life.

Despite Diedrich's indefatigable research, the protagonists' innermost lives remain hidden. Assing was in Europe in 1882 when Douglass's wife died. Oddly, she did not race back to America to claim her lover; nor did Douglass seek her out. "Perhaps," as Diedrich writes, "there was something of the boredom of long marriage in the way he saw her." Early in 1884 newspapers carried the story of Douglass's sudden marriage to Helen Pitts, a white woman 20 years younger than he. In August, Assing sat down on a park bench in Paris and drank a bottle of poison, ending her life. Her will left a substantial bequest to Douglass.

The articles Assing wrote for German publications reveal a sharply observant eye and a crisp, supple prose style. Had she cut herself loose from Douglass after the Civil War, Assing might have gone on to make something separate, and something greater of herself as a writer. Instead, she will settle into a place in history she could not have wished for -- a long footnote to the life of the great man.

Henry Wiencek is author of "The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White."