Background and Publishing History
Henry Box Brown’s Escape to Freedom
After gaining liberty, Brown moved to Boston and became an active abolitionist. He related the story of his escape many times over the spring and summer of 1849. It may have been at one of these events that Brown met Charles Stearns, a Massachusetts abolitionist, lay preacher, and pacifist who was employed as a printer. Stearns became the author and copublisher (along with Brown) of Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery (1849). Brown and Stearns published the book in September 1849 and set out on a book tour. They advertised in the Boston Liberator and traveled to more than forty New England towns—a successful venture, for, according to the 1851 Narrative, the “edition of 8,000 copies sold in about two months.”
Late in 1849, using his share of the publishing proceeds, Brown recruited Boston artist Josiah Wolcott and others to create a moving panorama. A theatrical phenomenon of the era, the moving panorama was a series of paintings on a very long canvas, rolled up like a giant scroll and presented scene by scene with descriptive commentary and music. Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery opened in April 1850. Several of its panels depicted his escape. Brown traveled with the exhibition throughout New England until August, when the impending passage of thebecame a danger to his freedom. Late in 1850 he fled with the exhibition to Great Britain.
After successfully exhibiting the panorama in the north of England, Brown earned enough to publish another book. The “First English Edition” of the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself was published in Manchester in May 1851. To promote its release, he had himself shipped in the original box by rail from Bradford to Leeds. At Leeds, a marching band accompanied the carriage that paraded the box to a theater for Brown’s “resurrection”—probably a unique event in the history of book promotion.
A second English edition was printed from the stereotype plates of the first in Bilston in 1852. It is identical to the 1851 edition except for the title page. Only one copy has been located, suggesting a limited print run. Brown likely funded the second edition with his award from a libel case he pursued against a Wolverhampton newspaper. Of the three editions of his two Narratives, Brown co-published the first and funded the latter two.
Narrative of Henry Box Brown (1849)
In the 1849 Narrative, Brown’s story is bookended by Stearns’s introduction and closing essay (the latter titled “Cure for the Evil of Slavery”). This format is similar to other slave narratives of the period. The book includes a frontispiece portrait of Brown, probably engraved from a daguerreotype, and an engraving of the box, as well as an excerpt of a speech about Brown made by Reverend Samuel J. May at the 1849 New England Anti-Slavery Convention. Of the book’s ninety-two pages, Brown’s narrative composes fifty-six.
Brown’s story begins with his childhood in Louisa County and ends with his arrival in Philadelphia. It tells little of his life as a free man. The title page claims that the narrative was “Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself”—that is, Brown—and the events described in the book do match accounts in the press and in letters of Brown’s talks. However, the 1849 Narrative does not ring true as Brown’s own expression. Brown’s personality is obscured by Stearns’s overbearing prose. The language is laden with rhetorical cries to the heavens, metaphors, analogies, and heartfelt pleas, all focused on making a moral argument against slavery. For example, it was not Brown who commented on the hypocrisy of Brown’s wife’s “pious” Presbyterian owner by referencing the Greek legend of the sword of Damocles: “O reader, have you no heart to sympathize with the injured slave, as he thus lives in a state of perpetual torment, the dread uncertainty of his wife’s fate, continually hanging over his head, and poisoning all his joys, as the naked sword hung by a hair, over the head of an ancient king’s guest….”
It is possible that Brown’s “Statement of Facts” was based on his public comments and that Stearns obtained Brown’s story by taking notes at his appearances. Indeed, the 1849 Narrative is structured like an antislavery meeting: the introductory framing, the fugitive’s tale, and the closing plea. Perhaps the book should be interpreted as if it were a transcript of public speaking. Stearns’s Brown states at the end of his narrative, “I now wish to introduce to your hearing a friend of mine….” The final section, written in Stearns’s own voice, opens: “You have listened with eager ears, and tearful eyes, to the recital of Mr. Brown.” The best way to read the 1849 Narrative might be aloud, with feeling.
Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851)
The main story in the 1851 Narrative remains essentially the same as that in the 1849 Narrative, but the 1851 book is more informative and less oratorical. It contains much new material and is more readable. Published in Manchester, England, the book includes an introduction by an English reformer, Reverend Thomas Gardiner Lee; an engraved illustration of Brown rising from the box, copied from an 1850 lithograph by one of the panorama artists; and the lyrics to two songs: the hymn Brown sang when he arrived in Philadelphia, and the light-hearted “Escape from Slavery of Henry Box Brown.” Thematically, the text focuses more on describing the often-hypocritical actions of the men who abet slavery rather than making a moral argument against the institution itself.
Despite the title’s claim that the 1851 book was “Written by Himself,” there is no evidence that Brown was sufficiently literate to put the words on paper. Nonetheless he was certainly a cocreator of the book, and the result is more directly Brown’s expression than is the 1849 Narrative. The sword of Damocles analogy, for instance, is not carried over from the earlier book. Several incidents elaborated in the 1851 Narrative could only have come from Brown, likely through interviews with the unidentified amanuensis: how Brown helped his wife’s master to purchase her, for example; how her master, who was ill, asked Brown and other slaves to pray for him, and then, after the master’s wife mocked him for that request, became angry with the slaves; how white Baptists in Richmond manipulated the terms of the sale of their old church building to the black congregation; and how, while singing at a Christmas benefit concert, Brown became disenchanted with the church’s mission.
Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851)
Furthermore, Brown’s position in Boston in early 1850 was conducive to preparing a book: he had a fixed residence, time, and money, and was working with creative people. In England he was an exhibitor on the move, living out of his trunk in temporary lodgings, and busy: advertisements have been found for shows that took place in most of the weeks leading up to the book’s release. In addition, letters written by Smith in this period describe Brown as much engaged in tasting the fruits of liberty—namely, visiting pubs and socializing.
Another indication that an American writer prepared the manuscript for the so-called English edition of Brown’s Narrative is a reference to one of Nancy Brown’s owners, a “Mr. Reevs, a minister of the gospel, who had not long come from the north, where he had the character of being an Anti-slavery man; but he had not been long in the south when all his anti-slavery notions vanished and he became a staunch advocate of slave-holding doctrines.” The 1851 Narrative reports that Reevs “even wrote articles in favour of slavery which were published in the Richmond Republican.”
Certainly it was Brown who recalled Reevs. But it’s hardly likely that Brown, who was denied access to newspapers in Richmond, would have known that Reevs wrote for the Richmond Republican. That information came from another source. There is a far better chance that a colleague from Massachusetts, where the Southern press was carefully watched, would have been a close enough reader of the Republican to know about Reevs’s articles, rather than anyone Brown met in Great Britain, across the ocean and beyond the range of postal subsidy for newspapers.
Reviews of the 1849 Narrative were mixed. The New York Evangelist praised it, describing Brown as “a humble, but strong prophet, whose voice is now touching thousands of breasts as with live coals from God’s altar—to kindle them against slavery.” A review in the September 28, 1849, edition of the North Star concluded, “We say to all our readers, Get the book.” In October 1849 a writer for Hudson, New York’s Rural Repository Devoted to Polite Literature declared, “Though we have no apology for slavery, yet it is remarkable to see how genius contrives to burst its fetters. Like the prison, it sometimes concentrates the whole genius. And the reader who wants to peruse one of the most thrilling exhibitions of genius, under the most discouraging circumstances, would do well to purchase the narrative before us.”
Others criticized the book, particularly Stearns’s writing. A review in the September 14, 1849, edition of the Boston Liberator “regretted that it was not prepared with more care, as its loose and declamatory style greatly mars its interest; still, there is much in it calculated to affect the heart, and to excite an intense moral abhorrence of the cruel system of slavery.” In the same vein was a review in the September 22, 1849, edition of the Christian Register: “We wish the compiler had not worked the matter up quite as much, and had given it in a style of greater verisimilitude, more simplicity and better taste, and mixed it less up with irrelevant matter.” The book was, the reviewer felt, a missed opportunity to affect change: “‘A round, unvarnished tale’ of this refuge from slavery, would be one of the strongest weapons for anti-slavery ever employed.”
Contemporary response to the 1851 Narrative is unknown. In Great Britain, press coverage of Brown was devoted to his exhibitions, not his book, and there is no indication that any copies of the English edition of the Narrative made their way to the United States for review.