Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814. His mother, an enslaved woman called Elizabeth, was owned by a Dr. John Young; his father was Dr. Young’s brother. From the age of twelve, Brown was hired out to work in many different trades. In 1832 he fled slavery with his mother, but they were recaptured. Young subsequently sold Brown’s mother to a slave trader going South and Brown to a businessman. On January 1, 1834, Brown escaped again, this time to Ohio, where he was helped on his way by a Quaker called Wells Brown. The escapee took Wells Brown as his last names, becoming William Wells Brown. In Cleveland, he found work at an abolitionist printing office, married, and started a family.In 1847 Brown and his story became well-known when he published the Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by himself. Two years later he traveled to England to lecture on the abolition circuit, as Frederick Douglass had done. While he was there, the U.S. Congress passed the (1850), making it impossible for Brown to return to the United States without either facing reenslavement or purchasing his freedom from the man who claimed to own him. Brown refused to do either. He was trapped in England, but he prospered there, publishing new versions of his narrative and writing and publishing Clotel; or the President’s Daughter. In 1854, abolitionists bought Brown’s freedom and he returned to America.
Brown’s wife had died in the United States while he was abroad. He married again and made his home in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. He published a second version of Clotel in 1860, a third in 1864, and a fourth in 1867. He continued to lecture in the North and to investigate in the South. He published more books, reworking and recycling favorite material. On November 6, 1884, Brown died in Boston.
Plot Summary (1853 version)
Brown’s novelbegins in the 1820s at a slave auction in Richmond. Thirty-eight enslaved men and women are for sale. Among them are Currer, the mistress of Thomas Jefferson, and her daughters: two “very superior” girls, Clotel and Althesa. They are Jefferson’s children. Clotel is older and more beautiful, and she fetches the highest price in the auction: $1,500 (about $35,000 in modern money).
Clotel’s price is cried up on the grounds of her youth, beauty, virginity, and Christianity. The auctioneer does not mention the fact that she is the daughter of a president. No auctioneer would make such a cry in Richmond: miscegenation was against the law, and Jefferson was held to be a model Virginian. Brown ends the first chapter of his novel by writing: “Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder!”
Clotel is purchased by Horatio Green, the son of a wealthy Richmond planter, who then marries her. Dick Walker, an evil slave trader, buys Clotel’s mother and sister and then sells the two women to two different owners. Currer is sold to the Reverend John Peck, of Natchez, Mississippi. She dies of yellow fever before Peck’s daughter Georgiana, an abolitionist, can free her. Althesa is sold to Henry Morton, who marries her and fathers her two daughters. But when Althesa and her husband die suddenly, their daughters are sold into slavery.
Clotel is comfortable and happy with her husband, and together they have a daughter, Mary. But their marriage is illegal under Virginia’s miscegenation laws. The ambitious Green abandons his family to marry a local politician’s daughter. When his new wife, Gertrude, discovers Green’s first wife and child, she takes Mary into her home as a house servant and sells Clotel to the villainous Dick Walker. Disguised as a man, Clotel escapes her enslavement and returns to Virginia to rescue her daughter. But slave takers, on alert in the wake of(1831), discover her. She escapes again, but rather than face reenslavement, she jumps into the Potomac River and dies. However, the novel does not end with the heroine’s death. Four final chapters provide a redeeming story of Mary, Clotel’s daughter, who escapes from the United States to Europe.
In addition to the narrative, Brown added documentary material—newspaper articles, notices, bills, posters, and advertisements—to contextualize his novel for a British readership that knew little about slavery. Many of these items came from Theodore Weld’s American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of A Thousand Witnesses (1839). This extranarrative material makes up nearly a third of the original Clotel.
Later Versions of Clotel
Brown was a thrifty writer. When he returned to the United States in 1854, he set about recycling materials previously published in England: Three Years in Europe, a travel book, and his Narrative. In 1860 he turned to the business of recycling Clotel. Brown published the book three more times, once in New York and then twice in Boston. Each time he gave the book a new title, used a new publisher, and adapted the plot. In all iterations, the novel locates much of its action in Virginia, but gradually Jefferson disappears from the telling.
The second version of Clotel was published in installments in the New York newspaper the Weekly Anglo-African from December 1860 to March 1861. Brown published it under the title Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon. A Romance of American Slavery, Founded on Fact. In it, Brown removed the documentary material that appeared in the 1853 Clotel except for epigraphs taken from abolitionist poetry and song. The additional context this material had provided to British readers was unnecessary for the readers of the Weekly Anglo African, an abolitionist newspaper. Brown also changed the name of Clotel’s daughter from Mary to Miralda, giving the title role to a character whose story ends in happy marriage, not tragic death. And Miralda is not a daughter of Thomas Jefferson, but “a descendant.”The shift away from Jefferson continues in the 1864 Clotel, which was published as part of a pamphlet novel series for Union soldiers and sympathizers. Called Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States, Brown revived the name of the first version of the novel, but applied it to a different character and gave it a new spelling. The character called Mary in 1853 and Miralda in 1860 becomes Clotelle in 1864. Brown removed the abolitionist epigraphs and excised all references to Jefferson, making Clotelle “the daughter of an American Senator.”
The 1867 Clotel was published as a hardcover. It is nearly identical to its predecessor except for its title—Clotelle; or The Colored Heroine, A Tale of the Southern States—and the addition of four chapters. In them, Clotelle and her husband return from Europe to the United States. Her husband dies a hero’s death in the(1861–1865). The widowed Clotelle makes her home on a plantation where she was once a slave and “where at this writing,—now June, 1867” she resides. Brown reinstated neither the abolitionist text nor the references to Jefferson.
The evolution from the 1853 Clotel to the 1867 Clotel reflects the passage of time and a changing readership. In 1853, under the Fugitive Slave Act, the abolitionist campaign was at a low point, while 1860 saw theand the beginning of secession. By 1864, the goals of the abolitionist movement were becoming real. The slaves in the secessionist states had been , and the Union was on its way to victory.
Brown’s intended readership for Clotel changed from British readers who were relatively uninformed about American slavery (1853) to highly informed African American readers (1860–1861) to Union soldiers (1864) to postwar readers of domestic fiction (1867). Because of this, the abolitionist apparatus that occupies a third of the original Clotel and was the enveloping context of the 1860–1861 Clotel gradually disappears. The typical Union solider was not likely to appreciate abolitionist preachments, or to think of Jefferson as a rapist of slave women. The abolitionist context is reduced to a footnote on the last page of the 1864 Clotel—”The author of the foregoing tale was formerly a Kentucky slave. If it serves to relieve the monotony of camp-life to the soldiers of the Union, and therefore of Liberty, and at the same time kindles their zeal in the cause of universal emancipation, the object both of its author and publisher will be gained”—and does not appear in the 1867 version.
Clotel is considered the first African American novel. Its publication in 1853 is remarkably early compared to the publication of the first southern novel, John Pendleton Kennedy‘s, in 1832. Considering that whites arrived in in 1607, twelve years earlier than blacks, and the oppression, slavery, and denial that Africans in America faced, the twenty-one-year gap between Kennedy’s and Brown’s novels narrows to almost nothing.
Brown did not know Virginia well. His masters never took him there and he could not go there as a fugitive slave. He did visit the state after the Civil War, but not for any substantial length of time. Nonetheless, Virginia figured large in his mind and in his writing. To him, Virginia was the antithesis of the America represented by Massachusetts. In Chapter 21 of Clotel, Brown asks the reader to look down on the Atlantic on November 30, 1620. To the north is a ship making its way to Massachusetts. “Justice, mercy, humanity, respect for the rights of all” are on that ship. To the south is a ship making its way to Virginia. In this ship are “slavery, idleness, lynch-law, ignorance, unpaid labour, poverty, and duelling, despotism, the ceaseless swing of the whip, and the peculiar institutions of the South.” (In Brown’s work, the first Pilgrims and thearrive in North America on the same day. The first Africans arrived in 1619, not 1620, but Brown distorts the facts for dramatic effect.)
As for Jefferson’s role in the novel, Brown knew only the rumors that Jefferson had fathered slave children, but he accepted them as fact. (DNA and historical evidence support the conclusion that Jefferson fathered six children with his enslaved housekeeper Sally Hemings.) In Brown’s view—a view shared by many enslaved people and supported by their lived experience—most slave owners were guilty of this. Brown selected Jefferson for special contempt because he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. president. A profoundly religious man, Brown could not forgive Jefferson’s hypocrisy. He quotes the Declaration’s crucial lines on the title page of Clotel: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are LIFE, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.” The block letters are Brown’s.
Clotel‘s reception is as mixed a story as its publication. This is reflected in the very different reactions of the work’s nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and twenty-first-century readerships.
There is close to nothing by way of direct record regarding the reception of Clotel in the nineteenth century. The novel appeared in London in 1853, in New York in 1860–1861, in Boston in 1864, and again in Boston in 1867. It may have been reviewed, but no reviews have been found. And, as the scholar Henry Louis Gates has noted, “black fiction was not popularly reviewed.” But the fact that four editors published Brown’s novel, apparently as a new novel each time, is evidence both of Clotel‘s worthiness as a book and of a lack of critical reaction of which successive editors were aware. For example, scholars can infer that Thomas Hamilton, the editor of New York Weekly Anglo-African, thought well enough of Miralda, or The Beautiful Quadroon to publish it in sixteen installments between December 1860 and March 1861. But what the readers of The Weekly Anglo-African thought of Miralda does not exist in the public record.
Twentieth-century reception of Clotel was initially hindered by the difficulty that people had in finding copies of the novel. and their presumption that they were reading the only version of the book. The 1853 and 1864 Clotels were not reprinted until 1969, while the 1867 Clotel remained difficult to access. The 1860–1861 version, Miralda, was believed to have been lost; some scholars, notably Hugh M. Gloster, the author of Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948), even questioned its existence.
Twentieth-century scholars and critics recognized Clotel‘s importance as the first African American novel but were indifferent or even hostile to Brown’s abilities as a writer. Blyden Jackson, in A History of Afro-American Literature (1989), recognized Brown’s work as the first in a black novelistic tradition but wrote that Clotel “cannot pretend to be great fiction, novelistic or otherwise. Everyone agrees on that.” Some critics even found Brown contemptible. The literary critic Addison Gayle Jr. wrote in his book The Black Aesthetic (1971) that Brown had surrendered “his racial identity to the American Mephistopheles for a pittance that Faust would have labeled demeaning.” Gayle centered black culture, identity, and power in his work. For him, it was a sorry thing that the first African American novel was Brown’s sentimental Clotel and not Martin R. Delaney‘s revolutionary Blake, or, the Huts of America (1859–1861). Looking for anger in the first African American novel, Gayle found forgiveness; where he looked for blackness, he found whiteness.
Critics who centered whiteness also had a problem with Clotel. Those who ascribed to New Criticism, a movement that demanded close reading of text, disregard of biography, and discounting of history, found no virtue in the book. In his 1932 book The Negro Author, the Columbia University professor Vernon Loggins wrote that “the great weakness of Clotel is that enough material for a dozen novels is crowded into its two hundred and forty-five pages.” In his 1969 study William Wells Brown and Clotelle: A Portrait of the Artist in the First Negro Novel, J. Noel Heermance calls the book “a hodge-podge.” Like most readers attempting a traditional reading of Brown’s work, Heermance favored the 1864 Clotel: the “edition which gives us an understanding of the artist.” No one championed the 1867 Clotel, and there were no readings of Miralda.
Twenty-first-century reception of Brown, however, has been stimulated by new readings of Clotel. In 2006 the University of Virginia Press published the four versions of the book as Clotel, by William Wells Brown: An Electronic Scholarly Edition. For the first time, a full comparative reading of all four versions became possible.
Digitization showed the way Brown moved paragraphs, sections, and chapters of Clotel to create the later versions of the novel. Digitized, his reorderings became as evident as deletions and additions. The greatest reordering took place between the 1853 and the 1860–1861 versions. Digitization also showed the consistencies among the four versions, making evident the unity of Brown’s creation. The versions morph through one telling to the next, carrying the reader from the slave auction in Virginia in the 1820s to a Mississippi plantation in 1867. The four novels begin to read as one novel in what literary scholar Hans Walter Gabler calls a “genetic text”—that is, a thing always in process, evolving from one state to another, with no one state identified as more fully the work than another. Read electronically, Clotel, Miralda, and the 1864 and 1867 Clotels become a single, evolving text exposing Southern slavery from Virginia to Louisiana, from antebellum America to postwar America.Hypertextual and genetic textual readings of the novel promise a new phase in the reception of Brown’s creation.