Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The 1853 publication of Clotel in England represented another verbal attack on the system of slavery in America by Brown, who had arrived in England in 1849. Because the novel was published in England, it cannot be considered the first novel published in the United States by an African American, but it does represent the first novel written by an African American. (Harriet E. Wilson, who published Our Nig in 1859, is credited as the first African American novelist published in the United States.)

Clotel did not receive a great deal of critical attention. Some critics have attributed this to its having been published shortly after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which, as an antislavery novel, had captured the attention of the British and American reading public. Another probable reason for Clotel’s neglect was the novel’s obvious attack on Jeffersonian democracy. Clotel was, however, reviewed in a number of British and American newspapers and antislavery publications, receiving mixed but generally favorable reviews. The Literary Gazette noted, “This tale of American slavery is one of deep interest. The writer has not the literary art . . . but he writes with the force and earnestness of one who has himself been a slave, and who keenly feels the wrongs of the coloured race.” Twentieth century critics have noted that Clotel contains material that could be...

(The entire section is 484 words.)