William Wells Brown Essay - Critical Essays

Brown, William Wells

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 [1856] 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (narrative essays) 1880

*Dates given for first publication rather than first performance.

Criticism

Larry Gara (essay date 1969)

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 the white abolitionists, these men could not be accused of speaking without knowledge and experience of the South's “peculiar institution.” A contemporary writer said of the slave narratives that they were “calculated to exert a very wide influence on public opinion” because they contained “the victim's account of the workings of this great institution.”2 An abolitionist editor saw in them an “infallible means of abolitionizing” the North. “Argument provokes argument,” he said, “reason is met by sophistry; but narratives of slaves go right to the hearts of men.”3

For William Wells Brown, born a slave in Kentucky around 1816, publication of his memoir brought fame and probably some monetary compensation. The first edition of a thousand hardbound and two thousand paperbound copies cost him less than eleven cents a copy, and it was quickly out of print.4 Within two years he sold out four editions totalling eight thousand copies.5 With its personal approach and vivid pictures of slave life, Brown's narrative quickly found a receptive audience. In addition to the American versions, it was translated into several foreign languages and circulated in European editions. The book was only the first of a notable series of literary productions from Brown's pen. In 1848 he published a short anthology of antislavery songs, The Anti-Slavery Harp, and in 1852 his travel book, Three Years in Europe, appeared in London and Edinburgh. The following year he published a novel, Clotel, or the President's Daughter, whose main character was an alleged mulatto child of Thomas Jefferson. Though it could not compete successfully with Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was one of the first novels published by an American Negro, and as such was a significant work. Brown wrote several dramas about slave life and published one in 1858: The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom. In The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements Brown traced Negro history back to its African origins and included short biographical sketches of notable colored persons. Other writings included The Negro in the Rebellion, and several historical volumes expanding on the material first presented in The Black Man. The number of his publications is impressive and contemporary critics were nearly unanimous in praising their quality.

It is the second, or 1848, edition of Brown's memoir which is reprinted in this volume. He made very few changes from the first edition, but he added several appendices and this new edition contains as well a transcript of a speech he made in November, 1847 to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts. The narrative was written thirteen years after Brown's escape from slavery and reflects, therefore, both the conditioning of his long contact with abolitionists and the vagaries of detail implicit in writing from distant memory. Nevertheless, it is full of insights about slavery and the antebellum South which only a former slave could know. Furthermore it is important both because of the impact it had on thousands of readers and because of the wealth of material it contains.6

Even before publishing his narrative William Wells Brown was known as an effective antislavery speaker, one of a number of former slaves whose message reached many northerners untouched by the white abolitionist crusader.7 In his talks Brown emphasized the terrible injustice of slavery as an institution which deprived individuals of their humanity, and he also included impressive eye-witness accounts of the cruelties which were sometimes practiced in the South. His lectures were well written and eloquently delivered, and he often drew large audiences both in America and in Great Britain, where he sometimes appeared in company with William and Ellen Craft, a famous fugitive slave couple from Georgia. Brown's lectures were occasionally illustrated with his own panorama of slavery, and after he wrote his antislavery plays he often substituted a dramatic reading for the usual lecture. In 1857 William Lloyd Garrison attended one of Brown's readings in Philadelphia and he reported it was “well delivered and well received” though the audience on that occasion was disappointingly small.8 A Vermont reporter commented that Brown held an audience breathless for nearly two hours with his wit and speaking ability. “His dignity of manner, his propriety of expression were more than we had expected to see in one who had spent the early part of his life as a slave,” he commented.9 A New York reporter found one of Brown's dramas, “in itself, a masterly refutation of all apologies for slavery, and it abounds in wit, satire, philosophy, arguments and facts. …”10 Although early in Brown's career antagonistic mobs sometimes interrupted his meetings, for the most part he was greeted with enthusiasm. He continued to give lectures on Negro history after the Civil War ended slavery. In 1868 the New York Evening Post described one of his historical lectures as “intensely interesting” and an “able and manly vindication of his race from the charge of natural inferiority.”11

Unlike Frederick Douglass, his more famous contemporary, Brown never broke with William Lloyd Garrison and the moral suasion school of abolitionists, though their reactions to him and his contribution varied considerably. “It is a long time since I have seen a man, white or black, that I have cottoned to so much as Brown, on so short an acquaintance,” said Edmund Quincy. Brown, he said, was an “extraordinary fellow,” with “no meanness, littleness, no envy or suspiciousness about him.”12 An English abolitionist reported to Garrison that a whispering campaign regarding Brown's personal life involving an alleged love affair was wholly without foundation...

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Bernard W. Bell (essay date 1974)

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...

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W. Edward Farrison (essay date 1975)

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...

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Gerald S. Rosselot (essay date 1980)

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...

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L. H. Whelchel, Jr. (essay date 1985)

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...

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L. H. Whelchel, Jr. (essay date 1985)

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...

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Paul Jefferson (essay date 1991)

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.]

I

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...

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Angelyn Mitchell (essay date 1992)

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...

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Christopher Mulvey (essay date 1994)

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,...

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Paul Gilmore (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 14515 words.)