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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown has been criticized as an early proponent of the assimilationist policies of Booker T. Washington and hailed as black America’s first professional man of letters. Despite being an advocate of economic aspirations similar to those of Washington, Brown demonstrated through his outspoken anti-slavery activity the militance and political shrewdness of Washington’s opponent, W. E. B. Du Bois. He published one of the first African American novels, drama, a travel book, and military histories of blacks in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. And while his writing reflects the sentimental standards of popular midcentury taste, his allegiance to the slave narratives’ trope of the flight to freedom, his “worrying” again and again with the figure of the person of mixed blood, his concern with the concept of identity—both in his most famous character, Clotel(le), and in his own life—mark him as the ancestor not only of later writers like Charles Chesnutt but of contemporary black artists.

One way of understanding Brown’s contribution to African American tradition is to read his pioneering literary efforts and his work for abolition, temperance, and black education as responses to what was at once a personal and racial imperative. Throughout his life he was devoted to improving the condition of his people and also, emblematically and materially, to creating a self and a world of possibility for a former slave who never forgot how that “peculiar institution” had operated to limit and dehumanize him. Once released, Brown’s Protean energies could not be contained by one literary genre, any more than by one professional career.

William Wells Brown was born the child of a slaveholding father and a slave mother in Kentucky in 1815. His first master, a Dr. Young, for whom he worked as both a house servant and, later, a part-time assistant, hired him out to a Major Freeland when he was around fourteen or fifteen. Freeland treated him so cruelly that, at this early age, Brown made his first escape attempt but was captured with the help of bloodhounds. In 1832, hired out again to James Walker, a slave trader, Brown witnessed many slave auctions, memories of which he drew upon in his subsequent writing.

In 1833, Brown made another escape attempt, this time with his mother, but they were captured after eleven days. His mother was sold down to New Orleans, and he was sold to Samuel Willi, a merchant tailor in Saint Louis. Willi sold Brown to Enoch Price, a Saint Louis commission merchant and steamboat owner, facilitating the young slave’s final “leap to freedom,” for on New Year’s Day, 1834, Brown escaped in Cincinnati, Ohio. Quickly moving to Cleveland, the nineteen-year-old became a steamboat worker and a barber in the off season. There, the same year, he met and married Elizabeth Schooner and, two years later, settled with his family in Buffalo, New York, a center of anti-slavery activity. In Buffalo, Brown began the political involvement that was to make him well known among activists in America and abroad. He welcomed anti-slavery agents into his home and made his house a station on the Underground Railroad. Another social cause attracted him: temperance. He organized one of the first temperance societies in western New York, aiming his efforts particularly at blacks. At the same time, recognizing his need to catch up educationally, he was studying English grammar, mathematics, history, and literature.

In 1847, he launched what was to prove an extraordinarily prolific writing career by publishing the Narrative of his own escape from slavery, an autobiography that was to go through at least eight editions at home and abroad. He followed this piece in 1848 with a compilation, The Antislavery Harp, of interest not only historically, but also for its inclusion of “Jefferson’s Daughter,” based upon the well-known rumor of the sale of Thomas Jefferson’s mulatto daughter at a New Orleans slave auction, the apparent inspiration for Brown’s subsequent novel.

In 1849, Brown went to Europe as a delegate from the American Peace Society to the Peace Congress in Paris. He moved to London, becoming a journalist on several newspapers, and there, in 1850, commissioned the painting of a series of scenes representative of American slavery.

Because of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Brown stayed in England longer than he had originally intended. In 1852, he published Three Years in Europe, a travel book consisting primarily of letters the author had written friends and newspapers in America. In 1853, the first version of Clotel, or The President’s Daughter, was published in London. Brown’s British friends purchased his freedom in 1854, and he returned home the same year. After visiting Canada, Brown published a historical study, The Black Man, His Antecedants, His Genius, and His Achievements, in 1862.

By 1864, he had begun practicing medicine and opened a doctor’s office in Boston. A second historical work, but the first of its kind, The Negro in the American Rebellion, appeared in 1867. An 1871 trip to Kentucky on behalf of temperance and black education resulted in Brown’s hair-breadth escape from the Ku Klux Klan. His last historical work, which includes a sketch of Frances Harper, The Rising Son, was published in 1873; his final book, My Southern Home, which appeared in 1880, contains an account of Brown’s trip to the South in the winter of 1879–1880 and is notable for its generous inclusion of slave songs and black folk songs of the Reconstruction period. William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, a suburb of Boston, on November 6, 1884.

Brown’s Clotel was until recently accepted as the first novel written by an American black; it is certainly among the earliest-known attempts at a fictional representation of American life from a black viewpoint. First published in London in 1853, the novel, which fiercely attacks slavery, attracted no special attention. When Brown returned to America, perhaps hoping to reach a larger audience, he changed the names of the major characters and made a number of other revisions in the narrative. For example, in Clotel the light-skinned heroine’s beloved is near-white in appearance, whereas in the revision he is quite dark; thus Brown raises the issue of color preference, a theme frequently encountered in later African American texts. The revised novel, with essentially the same story line, was published as “Miralda; or, the Beautiful Quadroon: A Romance of American Slavery, Founded on Fact,” in sixteen front-page installments in the Weekly Anglo-African between December 1, 1860, and March 16, 1861. Brown later shortened the novel, no doubt to fit the format of works in the Campfire Series, published by abolitionist James Redpath primarily for sale at ten cents a copy to Union soldiers. With the names of the characters again changed, the third revision, Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States, was brought out by Redpath in 1864 and, simultaneously, in New York by Dexter, Hamilton, and Company. The final version of the story, Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine—A Tale of the Southern States, appeared in 1867; it contains four new chapters in which Brown brought the action up to date, carrying it forward to two years after the Civil War.
Arlene Elder
University of Cincinnati

In the Heath Anthology
Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine
      II: "The Negro Sale" (1867)
      X: "The Quadroon's Home" (1867)
      XI: "To-day a Mistress, To-morrow a Slave" (1867)
      XVIII: "A Slave-Hunting Parson" (1867)

Other Works
Clotel, or the President's Daughter (1853)

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History Notes
A short introduction to Brown's work.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site containing a photograph, primary and secondary bibliographies, and suggested directions for analysis.

William Wells Brown
A short biography.

Secondary Sources

Josephine Brown, "Biography of an American Bondman," Two Biographies by African-American Women, 1991

Curtis William Ellison, William Wells Brown and Martin R. Delany: A Reference Guide, 1978

William Edward Farrison, William Wells Brown, 1969

J. Noel Heermance, William Wells Brown and Clotelle, 1969Richard Orlando Lewis, Irony in the Fiction of William Wells Brown and Charles Chesnutt, 1978

Jean Fagan Yellin, The Intricate Knot, 1972