The Autobiographical Writings of William Wells Brown Critical Context - Essay

William Wells Brown

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The autobiographical writings of William Wells Brown are important from three related points of view. First, the texts are important as biographical landmarks within the corpus of Brown’s work. Narrative of William Wells Brown, in particular, witnesses a double act of self-creation. Brown invents himself as a free man in making the escape the text recounts, and he invents himself as an author in recounting the escape he makes. Taken together, Narrative of William Wells Brown and The American Fugitive in Europe reveal the growth of the author’s distinctive voice and point of view as he fashions differently packaged accounts of successive stages of his life. They shed light on his emergence as an antislavery lecturer and his subsequent development into a polished man of letters.

Second, the texts are important for their exemplary status as distinct forms of first-person nineteenth century prose narratives. From this literary point of view, as the second authentic slave narrative and the first set of travel sketches published by an African American, the texts witness the growing formal repertoire of antebellum black authors.

Third and finally, the texts are important as cultural arguments that challenge normative representations of nineteenth century race relations. As such, they suggest the inherently political dimension of minority self-expression. Narrative of William Wells Brown and The American Fugitive in Europe mirror the emergence in the United States of an African American literary tradition—a family of equivocally subversive manners of speaking—whose richness is widely acknowledged.