Brown, William Wells
William Wells Brown 1813-1884
American novelist, dramatist, historian. For further discussion of Brown's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 2.
After growing up a slave in Kentucky, Brown escaped to freedom in Ohio and became a noted abolitionist and writer in both the United States and England. Though in his time Brown was primarily appreciated as an antislavery speaker and as the author of the notorious Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), he is now recognized as an important historian of black experience in America. Brown's importance to American literary history also stems from the fact that he was the first published American black novelist and playwright.
Born the son of a white slave owner and a black slave, Brown spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave on a plantation in Lexington, Kentucky. He escaped to freedom in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1834 and became passionately devoted to the abolitionist cause. He was befriended by a Quaker, Wells Brown, whose name the former slave took as his own. Brown first settled in Cleveland, where he worked as a handyman and continued to aid in the escape of other slaves. He eventually moved to Buffalo, New York, where he came to the attention of William Lloyd Garrison, who enlisted him as a lecturer in the abolitionist cause.
Brown's first publication, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847), was a great success and established him as an important social reformer. The success of the Narrative encouraged Brown, and in 1848 he collected a group of antislavery songs and published them under the title The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings.
Because of his exceptional ability as a speaker, Brown was chosen by the American Peace Society as its representative to the Paris Peace Congress of 1849. These activities, as well as his extensive travels in England as an antislavery lecturer, are chronicled in his next publication, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). Brown, at this time, was still a fugitive slave, and it was not until several English friends raised the money to pay his indenture that he became a free man.
While in England he completed Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, which proved to be a popular success and something of a scandal. Drawing on the legend that Thomas Jefferson had fathered many children by his slave mistresses, Brown cast his heroine, Clotel, as Jefferson's slave daughter. Brown shows, simply and effectively, both the horror and the irony of the institution of slavery in a system which would allow the daughter of a president to be sold into bondage. For the American version of the novel, which came out eight years later, Brown chose not to suggest presidential parentage for his heroine, concentrating instead on the heroism of his black characters in their fight for freedom.
Brown also wrote the first play by a black American to be published, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858) (his earlier drama,Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone  was never published). Though The Escape was never performed, Brown gave many readings of the play, largely to antislavery gatherings in the North. It was not a dramatic success, marred, as was much of Brown's work, by his didacticism. Brown was passionate and polemical in all that he wrote, and strove to impress his audience with the content, rather than the literary form, of his work.
It is perhaps as a historian of the black American experience that Brown is best remembered. In such works as The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), Brown illustrates the importance of blacks to American culture in the years following the Civil War. In his last work, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (1880), Brown presents essays of a nostalgic nature, combining his political and social concerns in a reminiscence of the South.
Critics have noted that, from a literary standpoint, Brown's achievement is weak. His fiction and drama are sensational and crafted for uncritical audiences. Arthur P. Davis echoes many critics when he says “If the subject is admittedly not an outstanding writer, why bother?” But he explains, as many scholars have come to realize, that Brown is an important subject of study because he chronicled a turbulent period of history from a perspective that rarely had a public voice at the time—that of the black slave. Brown committed his life and his work to the freedom and dignity of his people and to the abolitionist cause. Self-educated and strong-willed, he defied the barriers of racial prejudice to contribute the first novel, first play, and some of the first notable works of history to be published by a black American, enriching the lives of all Americans through his explication of the black experience.
A Lecture Delivered before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem (essay) 1847
Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (autobiography) 1847
The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings [editor] (songs) 1848
Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (travel essays) 1852 [published in the United States as The American Fugitive in Europe: Sketches of Places and People Abroad (1855)]
Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (novel) 1853 [revised as Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon (1861-62)] [also revised as Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States (1864)] [also revised as Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine (1867)]
St. Domingo: Its Revolutions and Its Patriots (essay) 1855
*Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone (drama) 1856
*The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (drama) 1858
The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (history) 1863
The Negro in the American Rebellion, His Heroism and His Fidelity (history) 1867
The Rising Son; or, Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (history) 1874
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SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, and a Lecture Delivered Before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, 1847, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969, pp. ix-xvii.
[In the following introduction, Gara presents an overview of Brown's life and explains that many elements of his philosophy can be found in modern Black Nationalism.]
“It is a terrible picture of slavery,” commented Edmund Quincy about William Wells Brown's newly written manuscript, “told with great simplicity. … There is no attempt at fine writing, but only a minute account of scenes and things he saw and suffered, told with a good deal of skill, propriety and delicacy.” Quincy was an abolitionist editor and the son of Harvard's president. When Brown asked him to read the manuscript, he intended only to glance at a few pages, but found it so good he could not put it down until interrupted by a call to dinner. He readily agreed to write a letter to be prefixed to the book, and suggested to the author only “one or two alterations and additions.”1
Brown's narrative quickly became a best seller and took its place with the memoirs of Frederick Douglass, Moses Roper and other former slaves whose writings contributed to the growing antislavery sentiment in the northern states. Whatever their literary merits, the works of ex-slaves had the ring of authenticity. Unlike...
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SOURCE: “Literary Sources of the Early Afro-American Novel,” in CLA Journal: Official Publication of the College Language Association, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1974, pp. 29-43.
[In the following essay, Bell traces the roots of the African-American aesthetic to the oral tradition, slave narratives, and the Bible.]
With the resurgence of Black cultural nationalism in the 1960's, the question of a Black aesthetic became a vital issue for many students of American literature. On one side of this issue were distinguished critics like J. Saunders Redding, who insisted that “aesthetics has no racial, national or geographical boundaries” and who saw no future for a school of writers that sought to establish a Black aesthetic.1 On the other side were Black cultural nationalists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Laurence Neal, who indicted Afro-American writers for their imitation of white middle-class models yet maintained that “there is no need to establish a ‘black aesthetic.’ Rather it is important to understand that one already exists. … The models for what Black literature should be are found primarily in our folk culture, especially in the blues and jazz.”2
In terms of militancy, the seeds of a Black aesthetic were sown in the Afro-American novel as early as 1859 with the serialization of Martin Delany's Blake; or, The Huts of America (1970)....
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SOURCE: “The Kidnapped Clergyman and Brown's Experience,” in CLA Journal: Official Publication of the College Language Association, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1975, pp. 507-15.
[In the following essay, Farrison looks at an anonymous play, The Kidnapped Clergyman, as a possible source for Brown's lesser known play, Experience.]
In 1839 an anonymous antislavery drama entitled The Kidnapped Clergyman; Or, Experience the Best Teacher was published in Boston with the imprint of Dow and Jackson. In the next year it was reprinted with the imprint of G. N. Thomas, also of Boston. Each of these printings consists of a duodecimo volume of 123 pages. The only difference between them is in the names of the publishers. The fact that there were two printings of the drama in a short time may lead one to suppose that it had become a popular work. If it had, most probably its popularity did not remain extensive in either time or locales. At least only a few copies of the two printings seem to be extant. The drama was probably written after the spring of 1836, perhaps not long before it was first published. At the end of the scene next to the last one in it, there is a reference to the atrocious burning alive in Saint Louis of Francis McIntosh, a free mulatto steamboat employee, who had been accused of murdering a white deputy sheriff. This burning occurred late in April, 1836, so that its date was...
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SOURCE: “Clotel, A Black Romance,” in CLA Journal: Official Publication of the College Language Association, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1980, pp. 296-302.
[In the following essay, Rosselot defends Clotel against criticism for its romanticism, explaining that the novel embraced the romance tradition of its time and succeeded in its political purpose.]
Clotel (1853), “generally considered the first novel written by an American Negro,” has often been a disappointment because the romance elements in it have been unrecognized. Although Farrison, William Wells Brown's biographer, calls the slave narrative based on the legend of Thomas Jefferson's black children the “memorable effort of a pioneer among Negro authors,” he notes that the book “abounds in imperfections.”1 Then there is Loggins' classic complaint: “The great weakness of Clotel is that enough material for a dozen novels is crowded into its two hundred and forty-five pages.”2 Farrison, agreeing that Clotel contains too much material for full treatment in a single novel, believes that besides stylistic problems “the novel suffers from sketchiness … in the portrayal of characters. …”3 Loggins feels that because the novel moves so rapidly “we never see any one person in the story at any time long enough to get a clear impression of his character.”4...
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SOURCE: “A Mighty Pen,” in My Chains Fell Off: William Wells Brown, Fugitive Abolitionist, New York: University Press of America, 1985, pp. 45-50.
[In the following essay, Whelchel provides a summary of Brown's first novel, Clotel, interpreting Brown's purpose as both entertaining and political.]
William Wells Brown's commitment to the struggle for freedom and equality for the blacks was a consuming passion that found expression, not alone in effort to effect his goals through legislation and political activity. He expressed himself, as well, in the idiom of literature.
Brown continued his relentless endeavor to crusade against slavery through writing novels and plays. He is recognized as the first black American male to publish a novel and a play. His first novel entitled Clotel, or The President's Daughter, was published in 1853, and a revised version, called Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States, was published in 1864. In his original version, Thomas Jefferson is the father of the slave heroine in his novel. The president's name was offensive to some of the abolitionist sympathizers. To broaden the appeal, Brown substituted an “unnamed senator” for the name of President Jefferson. The revised edition had also the expressed purpose of entertaining the Union Army in their quest for “Universal Emancipation.”
After experiencing the...
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SOURCE: “The Color of Ham and Cain,” in My Chains Fell Off, New York: University Press of America, 1985, pp. 63-66.
[In the following essay, Whelchel summarizes Brown's teachings on slavery and its effects.]
William Wells Brown, a productive and published writer of American literature, was one of the first black American authors to support himself through writing. He first published in 1847, only thirteen years after his escape from human bondage. Over the next forty years, Brown published nine major books and at his death in 1884, his works had appeared in over thirty editions. Primarily known as a writer, he was also an effective lecturer for the abolition of slavery.
Brown's initial publication, his The Narrative of William Wells Brown, was an effective attack upon slavery. His narrative was widely read and over a two-year period, 8,000 copies (four editions) were sold. The slave narrative presented the side of slavery as seen by its victims. To make a fair-minded and objective appraisal of American slavery, it is imperative to hear the side of the slave as well as the slave master. It is as important to know what the institution meant to Brown the slave, as what it meant to Dr. Young his master.
The fugitive slave presented the institution as having a degrading and negative effect on both black and white. Brown argues that by denying education to the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Travels of William Wells Brown, Markus Wiener Publishing, 1991, pp. 1-20.
[In the following essay, Jefferson contextualizes Brown's literary accomplishments by providing background information on his life.]
William Wells Brown, the black nineteenth-century man of letters, is best known for the Narrative of William Wells Brown, A Fugitive Slave (Boston, 1847), a once popular and now classic autobiography;1Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (London, 1853), the first novel published by an African-American;2 and several works of history, among them The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (Boston, 1873), the most important book by a black historian until George Washington Williams' History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1880 (New York, 1883). Brown's other writings include a compilation of anti-slavery songs, published lectures, a five-act play, and English and American editions of the first travel sketches published by a black American.
Brown's writings exhibit the thematic richness and formal variety of nineteenth century black literature at its best. As a pioneering architect of a black counter-discourse, an ambiguously subversive literary tradition whose complexity is now appreciated, his work warrants the closer reading it is beginning at last...
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SOURCE: “Her Side of His Story: A Feminist Analysis of Two Nineteenth-Century Antebellum Novels—William Wells Brown's Clotel and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig,” in American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1992, pp. 7-21.
[In the following essay, Mitchell argues that Brown and Wilson differed in their depiction of female characters because of their own gender biases and experiences.]
The first four novels by African Americans were published after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's consciousness-raising novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852).1 Two of these four novels, William Wells Brown's Clotel or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853) and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story House, North. Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859), examine, as one would expect, the major historical concern of their time—slavery. The primary issues for Black and White abolitionists—the paradoxical tenets of Christianity, the monstrous physical treatment of enslaved Blacks, and the psychological devastation of slavery on Black men, women, and children—are all interrogated by both novelists. However, and perhaps not surprisingly, Brown and Wilson approach these subjects from different...
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SOURCE: “The Fugitive Self and the New World of the North: William Wells Brown's Discovery of America,” in The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 99-111.
[In the following essay, Mulvey explicates Brown's interest in the paradox of the European “discovery” of America.]
Columbia is the poetical name for America, and the Columbiad is the poetical name for the journey to the New World. This journey is a quest, but it is a quest for special prizes, special riches which represent both the idea of a New World and the idea that that New World should be one distinct from a world known, explored, and exhausted. For the inhabitants of the New World that is Columbia, the Old World that is Europe is a place of tyranny and imprisonment, a world that denies to all but kings, emperors, and popes expression of self and ambition. The air of the New World is believed to be fuller, richer, cleaner, more exhilarating than the air of the Old World. Breathing that air makes possible the realization of dreams—dreams most powerful when they have been expressed as dreams of liberty.
Columbia is also that name for America which refers to the image of the continent as a land discovered by a European. Christopher Columbus is more present in the name Columbia than is Amerigo Vespucci in the name America. America has overwhelmed...
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SOURCE: “‘De Genewine Artekil’: William Wells Brown, Blackface Minstrelsy, and Abolitionism,” in American Literature, Vol. 69, No. 4, December, 1997, pp. 743-80.
[In the following essay, Gilmore examines how the popular minstrel show became for Brown a forum for constructing a “viable representative black manhood” and analyzes Clotelfor its representations of race and gender.]
In 1856, in addition to continuing to deliver lectures, former slave and “professional fugitive” William Wells Brown began to read dramatic pieces of his own composition at antislavery meetings.1 His first play—the first play known to have been written by an African American—was entitled either The Dough Face (a common epithet for “Yankees”) or Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone and provided a satirical reply to Boston clergyman Nehemiah Adams's proslavery A South-Side View of Slavery (1854).2 There is no extant text of this play, but two years later Brown published The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, another dramatic piece he often delivered to antislavery audiences. One of the central characters of The Escape is Cato, a slave characterized in the first two acts as a comic buffoon who toadies to his master and spies on his fellow slaves. In the second scene of the first act, Brown dramatizes Cato in an incident that he...
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Braga, Thomas. “Castro Alves and the New England Abolitionist Poets.” In Hispania: A Journal Devoted to the Interests of the Teaching of Spanish and Portuguese 67, No. 4. (December 1984): 585-93.
Compares and contrasts Brazilian abolitionism with New England abolitionism, finding some interesting parallels but not influences.
Clark, Margaret Goff. Their Eyes on the Stars: Four Black Writers. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Co., 1973, 174 p.
General biography, appropriate for young readers.
Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, 482 p.
Farrison provides a thorough biography of Brown, paying special attention to historical context.
Heermance, Noel J. William Wells Brown and Clotelle: a Portrait of the Artist in the First Negro Novel. Archon Books: Shoe String Press, 1969, 309 p.
Emphasizes Brown's importance to the genre of slave narratives.
Additional coverage of Brown's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 50, and 183; and Drama Criticism, Vol. 1.
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