The Autobiographical Writings of William Wells Brown Analysis

William Wells Brown

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Narrative of William Wells Brown, A Fugitive Slave chronicles William Wells Brown’s life as a slave from his birth in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1815 until his escape from Missouri to Ohio and freedom in 1834. It concludes with brief comments about Brown’s life in Cleveland and in Buffalo, New York, until 1843, when Brown became a traveling agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society.

The genesis of Brown’s narrative and the purpose it was meant to serve shed light on both its form and its content. The text proper represented the fleshing out of incidents from Brown’s life in bondage that he had been recounting on the antislavery lecture circuit since 1843. Dramatically witnessing the horrors of slavery—it was published two years after Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) and was more popular than Douglass’s pioneering account—it represented firsthand testimony that the abolitionist movement was eager to exploit. Because the effectiveness of Narrative of William Wells Brown as an antislavery brief turned on the authority of its author, a fugitive slave, Brown’s abolitionist friends packaged the text to enhance his credibility and appeal.

Formally, Brown’s autobiography is but one of the constituent elements of the narrative as a rhetorical whole. Readers encounter first an open letter from the author to the Quaker Wells Brown in which this earliest benefactor and “first white friend” is warmly thanked. This letter precedes one from Edmund Quincy, a Boston abolitionist Brown had asked to serve as his editor and public intermediary. There follows a preface by J. C. Hathaway, the president of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, Brown’s first employer.

Packaging Brown’s text in this way was meant to confirm the truthfulness of his account and to suggest in advance how to read it. The issues the book raises are clearly spelled out, and readers’ feelings are manipulated without apology. Functioning as Everyman, Edmund Quincy suggests that to read Brown’s narrative was to understand slavery better and to hate it worse. Hathaway comments that the author’s untutored ingenuousness carried the signature of truth. Christians and friends of the Bible could understand slavery only as theft and sin,...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. A pioneering use of speech-act theory to explore the ways African American autobiographies are meant to affect their readers.

Blassingame, John W., ed. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977. The introduction is a particularly useful discussion of how such sources have been and can be exploited as historical evidence.

Chaney, Michael A. Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. Discusses Brown’s exhibitionism and representation of self in his autobiographical writings.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. A useful history of the development of the slave-narrative genre.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Foreword to The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His “Strong, Manly Voice,” edited by Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Commentary on Brown’s narratives by a foremost scholar of African American literature and literarary history.

Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Passionate yet scholarly exploration of antebellum African American history. Bibliography, notes.

Williams, Kenny J. They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930. Nashville, Tenn.: Townsend Press, 1970. Chapter 3 gives a good analysis of the slave-narrative structure.