The Travels of William Wells Brown

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Brown’s two travel narratives, NARRATIVE OF WILLIAM WELLS BROWN, FUGITIVE SLAVE (1847; 1848) and THE AMERICAN FUGITIVE IN EUROPE. SKETCHES OF PLACES AND PEOPLE ABROAD (1855), ably edited by Paul Jefferson, furnish compelling recollections of his life from birth into slavery at Lexington, Kentucky (1814), through his escape in Cincinnati (1834) and his travels in the North and in Europe until his return to America as a certified free man (1854).

The first narrative chronicles Brown’s childhood sufferings, the ill-treatment of his family by slaveowners and slave-drivers, his life in slavery, escape, varied occupations, and work as a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. His candor and simplicity render powerful visions of the “peculiar institution” of slavery and its effects on both the exploiters and the exploited.

The second narrative features Brown’s travels to an International Peace Conference at Paris (1849) and his residence in England, prolonged by the passage of a new Fugitive Slave Law (1850). His encounters with the racial prejudice of Americans and his amazement at its European opposite form one fascinating dimension of the work. Also of interest are Brown’s impressions of European literary figures, statesmen, and institutions and his vivid descriptions of the people he encountered, their dress, occupations, and living conditions in London of the Crystal Palace era, in England’s Great Houses, and in laborers’ cottages.

In editing these superbly written narratives, Jefferson has reopened a mine of fascinating, detailed information about Brown, his era and its customs, and nineteenth century black America.