(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter, A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States is principally about the fate of an African American female slave, Clotel, who is described by William Wells Brown as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson. In her earlier years, Clotel’s mother, Currer, was a servant of Jefferson before his departure to Washington “to fill a government appointment,” at which time Currer was passed on to another master. In the context of the novel, Currer’s daughters are the offspring of Thomas Jefferson. As a quadroon, Clotel is much sought by the white males of Richmond, who viewed quadroon and mulatto females as a select choice for concubinage.

Brown’s book, however, does not begin with the story of Currer and her children, but rather with the “Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown,” a biographical sketch of Brown’s own experiences of bondage and his eventual escape to the North. The novel itself begins with the dilemma faced by Currer, who along with her daughters is sold on the auction block in Richmond after the death of her master. Clotel is bought by Horatio Green; Currer and her younger daughter, Althesa, are purchased by a slave trader who transports them south. Currer is sold in Natchez, Mississippi, to the Reverend John Peck. Althesa continues to New Orleans, where she is auctioned and purchased by James Crawford as a house servant.

The separation of Currer and her daughters provides the basis for the development of the three primary story lines, Clotel’s, Currer’s, and Althesa’s. Clotel’s story involves her life as a concubine of Horatio Green in Richmond, where she has been provided with a house and eventually gives birth to a daughter, Mary. Clotel’s relationship with Horatio Green is characterized by the language of the...

(The entire section is 746 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Analyzes Clotel in terms of Brown’s depiction of antislavery themes as well as Brown’s romanticized presentation of Clotel as an archetype of the tragic mulatto. Argues that Brown’s work is noteworthy because he gives a view of the folkloric elements in American slave culture.

Brown, William Wells. Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter—A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. Edited by Robert S. Levine. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. This critical edition includes excerpts from contemporary historical sources that serve to contextualize and comment upon Brown’s novel.

Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Slave’s Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Contains narratives and critical commentaries by a variety of authors. “I Rose and Found My Voice” points out the significance of Brown’s Narrative as authenticating Brown’s authorial voice and the novel Clotel.

Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. Provides a comprehensive critical biography of Brown. Clotel is viewed in terms of its antislavery message as well as its...

(The entire section is 442 words.)