Authors: William Wells Brown

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American memoirist, historian, and novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, 1847

Three Years in Europe, 1852

The American Fugitive in Europe, 1855

St. Domingo: Its Revolution and Its Patriots, 1855

Memoir of William Wells Brown, an American Bondman, 1859

The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, 1863

The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity, 1867

The Rising Son: Or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race, 1873

My Southern Home, 1880

Long Fiction:

Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter, 1853 (revised as Miralda: Or, The Beautiful Quadroon, 1860-1861

Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States, 1864; and Clotelle: Or, The Colored Heroine, 1867)

Drama:

The Escape: Or, A Leap for Freedom: A Drama in Five Acts, pb. 1858

Poetry:

The Anti-Slavery Harp, 1848

Biography

The first African American man of letters, William Wells Brown is a representative of the earliest great age of black writing in America, from 1830 to 1860. Without having had formal schooling, Brown was a pioneer in African American writing–especially fiction, drama, history, biography, and travel literature–and one of the most widely read authors of the mid-nineteenth century. Certain of his literary techniques were followed well into the twentieth century. In the many lectures that he gave, Brown spoke of the five phases of his life: as slave, laborer, lecturer, author, and physician. It was his life as a slave that was most memorable. Born on a farm outside Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814, he was the youngest, or one of the youngest, of seven children born to a field slave named Elizabeth; each of the children had a different father. Brown’s owner was John Young, a physician and farmer; his father, whom he never knew, was probably Young’s half brother.{$I[AN]9810002005}{$I[A]Brown, William Wells}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Brown, William Wells}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Brown, William Wells}{$I[tim]1814;Brown, William Wells}

As a child, he saw people divided into two groups. People in the larger group, to which he and his mother belonged, had complexions ranging from ivory to ebony. These people did all the work of the farm but had little food or clothing and lived in small, cramped, airless, floorless, windowless cabins. People in the smaller group, mostly but not entirely light-skinned, did little or no work yet expected the best of everything and always wanted more than they could use. When the Youngs brought a nephew to live with them, whose name was also William, Brown discovered how very little he could call his own. Not only did the Youngs now have in their household two nephews of the same name, one enslaved, the other not, but all noticed that the slave resembled his owner more than did the free child. The Youngs removed one source of embarrassment by changing the slave’s name from William to Sandford, a designation that he endured like a stigma until his escape.

Because Brown was intelligent and alert, he was not sent out into the fields but hired out to work in larger cities. Between his fourteenth and twentieth years, he was owned or hired out to ten different men. This circumstance gave him broad knowledge of the mechanics of slavery, and he put his knowledge to good use on New Year’s Day, 1834, when he escaped.

During the next eight years, he relished the ability to keep his own earnings and to start his own family. At the same time, he declared himself an abolitionist, opened his home to the Underground Railroad, and ferried fugitives across Lake Erie to Canada. The next watershed year in his life, 1842, marked the passing of the private man into the public figure. Inspired by a rousing address by Frederick Douglass, he began lecturing in churches and soon became part of the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement.

Soon Brown was carrying the message of abolition through New England, New York City, Pennsylvania, the new farmlands from upstate New York across Ohio and Illinois, and into Canada. As Douglass, his lifelong mentor, became the impassioned preacher of the movement, so Brown developed into its accomplished storyteller. During a normal week, he lectured in two or three different towns, depending on their proximity; with the exception of periods of writing or ill health, he maintained this schedule for forty years. His first book, published in 1847, was an inevitable extension of his lecturing. Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself soon became one of the best-selling and most influential works of antislavery literature. It sold ten thousand copies in four editions within two years and many more in later British editions, thus far outselling anything written during the period by Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, or Nathaniel Hawthorne.

An intended brief visit to Europe lengthened, as a result of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, into a five-year stay. During these years, Brown needed to write to live and found London publishers eager to accommodate him. Thereafter, he was able to earn his living by his pen, becoming the first African American to do so. In 1852, he produced Three Years in Europe, an important travel book, and a year later he completed the earliest African American novel. Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter, which appeared just one year after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a sensational blending of pathos and history, resulting in a tale of mythic proportions.

After returning to the United States in 1854, Brown, who always spent a good deal of time rewriting, revised his novel three times, giving it a different title each time. The version entitled Miralda: Or, The Beautiful Quadroon appeared in sixteen front-page installments of the New York Anglo-African between December 1, 1860, and March 16, 1861; it was never reprinted in book form. The next version, Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States, shortens the tale by about one hundred pages to fit the format of a reprint series. In the final version, Clotelle: Or, The Colored Heroine, Brown reproduced the preceding edition and carried the story through the Civil War with the addition of four new chapters.

During the next few years, Brown published four histories, an enlargement of his travel book, the first published African American drama, entitled The Escape: Or, A Leap for Freedom, and a further memoir, Memoir of William Wells Brown, an American Bondman. My Southern Home, his last book and one of his best, joins a history of slavery in the South with the report of a trip he had taken in the South in 1879-1880.

BibliographyAndrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. A definitive study of the slave narrative as a literary form.Ellison, Curtis W., and E. W. Metcalf, Jr. William Wells Brown and Martin R. Delany: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A valuable checklist of criticism.Ernest, John. Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. The definitive biography, upon which all subsequent scholarship has depended.Jackson, Blyden. The Long Beginning, 1746-1895. Vol. 1 in A History of Afro-American Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Fills in the context out of which Brown’s work grows.Sekora, John, and Darwin T. Turner, eds. The Art of Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1982. Includes several essays on the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself.Thorpe, Earl E. Black Historians: A Critique. New York: William Morrow, 1971. Discusses Brown’s historical works.Whelchel, L. H., Jr. My Chains Fell Off: William Wells Brown, Fugitive Abolitionist. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985. Discusses Brown’s life as a fugitive slave and an abolitionist. Includes an index and a bibliography.
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