Author: Christopher Mulvey

emeritus professor of English and American Studies at the University of Winchester in England

Clotel; or the President’s Daughter (1853)

Clotel; or the President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States by William Wells Brown was published in 1853 in London. It is considered the first African American novel. Brown, the son of an enslaved woman and her owner’s brother, escaped from slavery and was a lecturer on the abolition circuit in England when he published Clotel. He based the book on the rumor that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children with his enslaved housekeeper, Sally Hemings—a rumor that DNA evidence and the historical record have since proved true. Clotel follows Jefferson’s fictional mistress, Currer, and her daughters, Clotel and Althesa, during and after their sale on the auction block in Richmond; it also included documentary material—newspaper articles, notices, bills, posters, and advertisements—that contextualized his novel for a British readership that knew little about slavery. Brown hardly knew Virginia, but for him it represented all that was evil about the slave-owning United States—as did Jefferson, arguably Virginia’s most famous son. Brown hated Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence while also fathering slave children. Brown published three additional versions of Clotel in 1860–1861, 1864, and 1867. Each one was published with a different title, in a different format, and for a different readership. Ultimately, Brown removed Jefferson from the tale. Traditional literary critics considered Brown’s overstuffed plots and extranarrative material a weakness, but modern readings see the four versions of Clotel as comprising an evolving whole. A digital scholarly edition that includes all versions of the book, published in 2006, at last made a full comparative reading possible.