William Wells Brown Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The first African American man of letters, William Wells Brown is a representative of the earliest great age of black writing in America, from 1830 to 1860. Without having had formal schooling, Brown was a pioneer in African American writing—especially fiction, drama, history, biography, and travel literature—and one of the most widely read authors of the mid-nineteenth century. Certain of his literary techniques were followed well into the twentieth century. In the many lectures that he gave, Brown spoke of the five phases of his life: as slave, laborer, lecturer, author, and physician. It was his life as a slave that was most memorable. Born on a farm outside Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814, he was the youngest, or one of the youngest, of seven children born to a field slave named Elizabeth; each of the children had a different father. Brown’s owner was John Young, a physician and farmer; his father, whom he never knew, was probably Young’s half brother.

As a child, he saw people divided into two groups. People in the larger group, to which he and his mother belonged, had complexions ranging from ivory to ebony. These people did all the work of the farm but had little food or clothing and lived in small, cramped, airless, floorless, windowless cabins. People in the smaller group, mostly but not entirely light-skinned, did little or no work yet expected the best of everything and always wanted more than they could use. When the Youngs brought a nephew to live with them, whose name was also William, Brown discovered how very little he could call his own. Not only did the Youngs now have in their household two nephews of the same name, one enslaved, the other not, but all noticed that the slave resembled his owner more than did the free child. The Youngs removed one source of embarrassment by changing the slave’s name from William to Sandford, a designation that he endured like a stigma until his escape.

Because Brown was intelligent and alert, he was not sent out into the fields but hired out to work in larger cities. Between his fourteenth and twentieth years, he was owned or hired out to ten different men. This circumstance gave him broad knowledge of the mechanics of slavery, and he put his knowledge to good use on New Year’s Day, 1834, when he...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Southern laws that made slave literacy illegal were on the books for a reason. William Wells Brown, a former slave, employed his talents as a writer to argue for African American freedom. In the pre-Civil War years, his eloquence as an orator made him an important figure in the abolitionist crusade, and recognition of his literary activities led to appreciation of his pioneering uses of fiction to critique slavery.

Brown’s speeches were often incisive and militant. He showed little admiration for those patriots (such as Thomas Jefferson) who, Brown pointed out, owned and fathered slaves even as they founded a new nation dedicated to liberty and equality. He questioned the respect that is generally accorded to the Declaration of Independence and to the Revolutionary War by revealing how these icons of American history failed to confront African enslavement. At an antislavery meeting in 1847 he said that if the United States “is the ‘cradle of liberty,’ they have rocked the child to death.”

Opponents of abolition often founded their arguments on racist assumptions. Brown’s detractors made much of the fact that Brown’s father was a white man (probably his master’s brother), and implied that his achievements stemmed from the “white blood” of his father. For example, when Brown traveled to Europe to gain overseas support for abolitionism, an English journalist sneered that Brown was “far removed from the black race . . ....

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. A definitive study of the slave narrative as a literary form.

Ellison, Curtis W., and E. W. Metcalf, Jr. William Wells Brown and Martin R. Delany: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A valuable checklist of criticism.

Ernest, John. Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. The definitive biography, upon which all subsequent scholarship has depended.

Jackson, Blyden. The Long Beginning, 1746-1895. Vol. 1 in A History of Afro-American Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Fills in the context out of which Brown’s work grows.

Sekora, John, and Darwin T. Turner, eds. The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1982. Includes several essays on the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself.

Thorpe, Earl E. Black Historians: A Critique. New York: William Morrow, 1971. Discusses Brown’s historical works.

Whelchel, L. H., Jr. My Chains Fell Off: William Wells Brown, Fugitive Abolitionist. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985. Discusses Brown’s life as a fugitive slave and an abolitionist. Includes an index and a bibliography.