Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter
William Wells Brown, with an introduction by Hilton Als
Modern Library, 230 pp., $10.95 (paper)
Nella Larsen, with an introduction by Ntozake Shange
Modern Library, 182 pp., $18.95
Of African-Americans who have written on slavery from the perspective of having been born slaves, lived as slaves, suffered as slaves, and at last escaped from slavery, no one has written more movingly and more persuasively than William Wells Brown (circa 1814–1884), an abolitionist and reformer whose last book, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (1880), is a forerunner of W.E.B. Du Bois’s magisterial The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Less acclaimed than Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, less a rallying iconic figure than Sojourner Truth, Brown would seem to have been a remarkable man. Though he came relatively late to the cultivation of what the nineteenth century called belles lettres, after an activist involvement in the Underground Railroad and the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, Brown is credited with having written the first African-American novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853); the first African-American travel book, Three Years in Europe (1852); the first African-American drama, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858); one of the first African-American autobiographies, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847), which went through numerous American and British editions before 1850 and made its author internationally famous; two volumes of history, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863); and the first military history of African-Americans in the United States, The Negro in the American Rebellion, His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867).
Brown’s most comprehensive African-American history is The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race (1874), containing biographical sketches of more than 110 prominent African-Americans. Yet Brown himself remains relatively unknown to contemporary readers. His listing in the encyclopedic Black Saga: The African American Experience by Charles M. Christian (1995), for example, is minimal, and he isn’t included at all in Gerald Early’s massive two-volume anthology Speech and Power (1992–1993).
Like Clotel, Brown’s bravura mix of reportorial history and romantic fairy tale, Brown’s life story would seem to have been partly invented along mythic lines. The tradition of “authenticating” one’s authority to speak of, and against, slavery obligated the former slave to narrate his or her life in convincing detail; to make one’s experience seem representative, archetypal, dramatic was the goal. To this end Brown provides several versions of his parentage and early life and in successive versions his story became more emblematic. In the first edition of the Narrative, Brown is born of slave parents in 1814 on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky; in the second edition, Brown is stolen as an infant by a slave trader; in the second revised edition, Brown is born of a slave mother and a white slaveholding father, and his “mulatto” mother’s father was “the noted Daniel Boon.” In this way, Brown as abolitionist-author-visionary is aligned with a mythic-historic figure of white America, much like his romantic heroine Clotel, whose alleged father (Thomas Jefferson) is even more elevated.
This claim …