William Wells Brown Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

William Wells Brown 1813-1884

American novelist, dramatist, historian. For further discussion of Brown's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 2.

After growing up a slave in Kentucky, Brown escaped to freedom in Ohio and became a noted abolitionist and writer in both the United States and England. Though in his time Brown was primarily appreciated as an antislavery speaker and as the author of the notorious Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), he is now recognized as an important historian of black experience in America. Brown's importance to American literary history also stems from the fact that he was the first published American black novelist and playwright.

Biographical Information

Born the son of a white slave owner and a black slave, Brown spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave on a plantation in Lexington, Kentucky. He escaped to freedom in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1834 and became passionately devoted to the abolitionist cause. He was befriended by a Quaker, Wells Brown, whose name the former slave took as his own. Brown first settled in Cleveland, where he worked as a handyman and continued to aid in the escape of other slaves. He eventually moved to Buffalo, New York, where he came to the attention of William Lloyd Garrison, who enlisted him as a lecturer in the abolitionist cause.

Major Works

Brown's first publication, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847), was a great success and established him as an important social reformer. The success of the Narrative encouraged Brown, and in 1848 he collected a group of antislavery songs and published them under the title The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings.

Because of his exceptional ability as a speaker, Brown was chosen by the American Peace Society as its representative to the Paris Peace Congress of 1849. These activities, as well as his extensive travels in England as an antislavery lecturer, are chronicled in his next publication, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). Brown, at this time, was still a fugitive slave, and it was not until several English friends raised the money to pay his indenture that he became a free man.

While in England he completed Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, which proved to be a popular success and something of a scandal. Drawing on the legend that Thomas Jefferson had fathered many children by his slave mistresses, Brown cast his heroine, Clotel, as Jefferson's slave daughter. Brown shows, simply and effectively, both the horror and the irony of the institution of slavery in a system which would allow the daughter of a president to be sold into bondage. For the American version of the novel, which came out eight years later, Brown chose not to suggest presidential parentage for his heroine, concentrating instead on the heroism of his black characters in their fight for freedom.

Brown also wrote the first play by a black American to be published, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858) (his earlier drama,Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone [1856] was never published). Though The Escape was never performed, Brown gave many readings of the play, largely to antislavery gatherings in the North. It was not a dramatic success, marred, as was much of Brown's work, by his didacticism. Brown was passionate and polemical in all that he wrote, and strove to impress his audience with the content, rather than the literary form, of his work.

It is perhaps as a historian of the black American experience that Brown is best remembered. In such works as The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), Brown illustrates the importance of blacks to American culture in the years following the Civil War. In his last work, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (1880), Brown presents essays of a nostalgic nature, combining his political and social concerns in a reminiscence of the South.

Critical Reception

Critics have noted that, from a literary standpoint, Brown's achievement is weak. His fiction and drama are sensational and crafted for uncritical audiences. Arthur P. Davis echoes many critics when he says “If the subject is admittedly not an outstanding writer, why bother?” But he explains, as many scholars have come to realize, that Brown is an important subject of study because he chronicled a turbulent period of history from a perspective that rarely had a public voice at the time—that of the black slave. Brown committed his life and his work to the freedom and dignity of his people and to the abolitionist cause. Self-educated and strong-willed, he defied the barriers of racial prejudice to contribute the first novel, first play, and some of the first notable works of history to be published by a black American, enriching the lives of all Americans through his explication of the black experience.