Narrative of William Wells Brown is best understood as an extended argument against slavery. Following Frederick Douglass, Brown fashions an insider perspective on the “peculiar institution” by helping to establish the formal conventions—the generic themes, the stock human types, and the characteristic incidents—of the slave narrative, its primary literary vehicle.
The obscenity of slavery is dramatized in the narrative, for example, in the persons of a New England overseer, a Christian slaveholder, and a predatory slave driver—figures whose twisted identities point up the unnaturalness of a social institution that produces human mutants. Early in chapter 3, Brown introduces the overseer, Friend Haskell, a New England Yankee, and suggests without comment that Northerners in that role were noted for their cruelty. Chapter 4 closes with an eloquently spare account of the on-the-ground meaning of religion in the South as but an alternative language of power. In describing the visit of Mr. Sloan, a young Presbyterian minister from the North, Brown notes that Sloan did not teach Brown’s master theology; Brown’s master taught theology to Sloan. Having got his religion homegrown, Brown observes—identifying the practical consequences of slaveholder Christianity—his master proceeded to regiment his slaves more harshly in the name of the Lord. Finally, Brown’s distaste for the slave driver James Walker, who represents the acme of villainy in the narrative, is so profound as to inspire his best writing. Walker forces the chaste quadroon, Cynthia, into his bed; fathers four children by her; then sells children and mother down the river. While driving a coffle of slaves to St. Louis, Walker tears a crying child from a mother who is unable to soothe her. He leaves the child behind to spare himself further annoyance. Brown’s year in Walker’s service, he reports, was the longest he ever lived.
The physical violence inherent in the master-slave relation is evident throughout the book. Ten unsettling incidents are witnessed in the brief text, most of them involving attempts to bring male slaves to heel. In the logic of the master-slave relation, the need to break the spirit of the slave was a systemic one. Making discussion of the practice of slave-breaking a convention of the genre becomes a powerful means of illuminating the dark side of the “peculiar institution.”
The spiritual violence suffered by slaves is suggested in a telling fashion. The young William is deprived of his given name as a child when his master’s nephew moves into their household. Because the white William preempts their common name, the black William is henceforth known as Sandford. His resentment at being so brusquely expropriated burns throughout his years as a slave.
Brown’s perspective on his double predicament as a slave appears later when he says that he was not only hunting for his liberty but also hunting for a name. For this reason, following his escape, his physical liberty must be consolidated and confirmed by an assertion of spiritual autonomy. Thus, the significance of his encounter with the Quaker Wells Brown is that William becomes fully his own man when he chooses a name for himself. He repossesses his given name, William, and takes on the family name of this early benefactor. Asserting a prior right and staking a claim to a future of his own making, Sandford becomes William Wells Brown. That acquiring the name of a free man was a matter of some consequence is seen in the author’s dedication of the book to Wells Brown, his “first white friend.”
Overall, the details of Brown’s account are organized around the thematic contrast between slavery and freedom. The social fact that slaves are cultural objects is played off against the fictions with which masters monopolize the status of human subjects. The brutal logic of mastership is dramatized in political and psychological terms. Finally, Narrative of William Wells Brown
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