|Feb 14, 2013 - Issue 504|
William Wells Brown:
On November 10, 1884
both The Boston Daily Globe and The Boston Herald reported the burial of
William Wells Brown in the
For almost two
decades Brown endured life as a slave. In his case it was a varied life,
because after serving as a house servant to Dr. and Mrs. Young as a young boy,
he was hired out to various people including an inn keeper, a printer, a slave
trader, and a Mississippi steamboat captain; ultimately he was sold twice - first
to Samuel Willi, a tailor, and later to Enoch Price, a steamboat owner. Three
times Brown attempted to escape to “a land of liberty”; the first two times he
was recaptured and punished but the third time he successfully fled from
In his half-century
of freedom, Brown earned his livelihood by pursuing three different
occupations: reformer, author, and physician. Brown did not pursue these
occupations successively but simultaneously. He became an accomplished lecturer
on the antislavery circuit in the
Although William Wells Brown probably was better known in his own time as an urbane, ironic, and captivating melodiously voiced lecturer, he is primarily remembered in ours as an African American literary pioneer. Brown wrote autobiography, fiction, drama, poetry and history. A lover of poetry, Brown inserted verses - his own and others’ - into his fiction and non-fiction pieces. He was the first African American to publish a travelogue in 1852, a novel in 1853, a play in 1858, and a military history in 1867. By the time that Brown laid down his pen in 1880, he had published sixteen books and multiple editions of several of these volumes.
As a writer Brown
was a recycler extraordinaire of tales. He wrote four versions of his novel, Clotel; Or the President's Daughter. Sometimes only the title and
characters’ names changed - Clotel; or, The
President’s Daughter in 1853 became Miralda;
or, The Beautiful Quadroon in 1861 and sometimes the narrative was
altered - the 1864 story of Clotelle:
A Tale of the Southern States ended
in Europe during the Civil War, while Clotelle:
or, The Colored Heroine of 1867 ended in the United States during
Reconstruction. Brown retold his life story not only in the 1849 edition of The Narrative of William W. Brown, A
Fugitive Slave but in the Memoirs which served as introductions to his
first historical work The black man: his antecedents, his genius, and his achievements
in 1863 and to his last
book, My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People
Two of his historical works, Black Man...
(1863) and The rising son, or, The antecedents and advancement of the colored race
(1873), contained biosketches of prominent
African American men and women 27 of the 57 sketches in The Black Man reappeared among the 81 in The Rising Son in identical words or only slightly altered.
often fictionalizing his personal experience and revealing his ironic sense of
humor recur in different literary works. In both his travelogue, The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad, and his
introductory Memoirs in The Black Man and
The Rising Son , he tells the tale of
how he threw wet bed sheets out the window of an English inn; when the landlady
demanded that he pay for the sheets , Brown responded “’Oh, yes,…I will pay for
them; put them in the bill, and I will send the bill to The Times, and have it published, and let the travelling public
know how much you charge for wet sheets!’” The landlady’s response was not only
to exclude the sheets from his bill but to implore him never to mention the inn
in recounting his experience and to provide him with toasty dry sheets the next
time he lodged at the inn.
In Clotel and in The Negro In The American Rebellion
recounted being forced to sit on a flour barrel in an open freight car as he
traveled by train through Ohio. When the conductor demanded that Brown pay
$1.25 - the same fare as people riding in passenger cars, Brown refused and
asked what was charged for 100 lbs. of freight; the conductor replied
twenty-five cents. “’Then I’ll pay thirty-seven and a-half cents,’ said I; ‘for
I weigh one hundred and fifty pounds.’…Finally, the officer…said ‘Give me
thirty-seven and a-half cents, and I’ll set you down as freight.’” Similar
incidents recur in different literary works and genres, such as inadvertent
comments to a slave mistress about the resemblance of a mulatto child to her
slave master husband or the pulling of the wrong tooth by an inept slave
Brown repeatedly recounted dramatic situations which critically addressed the nature of slavery - the entanglement of southerners, northerners, and slaves in the peculiar institution. Brown recounted the hypocrisy of slave holders, such as the pious Christian master and mistress who cruelly mistreated their enslaved servants; Dr. and Mrs. Young, his original owners, not only appeared in his autobiographical accounts but were the models for Dr. and Mrs. Gaines in his play Escape and in his last book My Southern Home. Northerners also fell under Brown’s critical gaze. In his speech to the Salem Female Anti-Slavery society he commented on how Christians in the North support the slavocracy and in later works he railed against northern color prejudice and its life constraining consequences for African Americans. Moreover, one of the subtexts of Brown’s novel Clotel was how readily Northerners adapted to southern customs: Rev. Peck from Connecticut married and acquired a plantation with 70 slaves and wrote doggerel about “My Little Nig”; Honz Snyder from New York preached to Blacks and poor whites using biblical texts to support slavery; James Crawford from Vermont purchased Althesa as a servant for his wife; and Dr. Henry Morton from Vermont bought and married Althesa erroneously thinking she and their daughters were free and would be free after his death. Blacks were not immune from Brown’s critical gaze; in his writings slaves were both faulted and celebrated for their use of deception and cunning to achieve their interests as well as for color prejudice among themselves. Brown saw American society and character flawed throughout by slavery and its aftermath.
Paula Garrett and
Hollis Robbins who have edited a recent collection of William Wells Brown’s
note that William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass were both extremely
popular antislavery lecturers in their own times, but that we today remember
Douglass rather than Brown. Garrett and Robbins contrast their rhetorical
styles in these words “William Wells Brown’s rhetorical strategy of evoking
culture and addressing the concerns of women…differs greatly from Frederick
Douglass’s strategy of muscular, fiery, public oratory. If Douglass represented
a cognitive approach to the question of abolition by emphasizing a commitment
to the founding principles of
How did a young man who was illiterate at the time that he escaped to freedom become a cosmopolitan man of letters, an influential orator, and a medical practitioner? I think that William Wells Brown was able to transform himself because he was a keen observer of human behavior. As a young boy he had been a house servant and later had diverse occupational experiences during his enslavement. These experiences exposed him to a great variety of human situations involving both white and black southerners. He observed as Garrett and Robbins suggest that the slaves who succeeded within the American slave system were those who used “guile and deception to protect and advance their interests.” He himself became something of a trickster. He was a man who lived by his wits - how else would one explain the way in which he transformed the wet-sheet incident to his advantage with the innkeeper and the freight-train incident in which he bested the conductor? These are just two of many examples in his life story and his writings of his clever manipulation of situations to achieve his personal goals.
Above all, William
Wells Brown was a self-made man, beginning with his name. When he was escaping
“I told him that he was the first man to extend the hand of friendship to me, and I would give him the privilege of naming me.
“’If I name thee,’
he said ‘I shall call thee Wells Brown, after myself.’
“’But,’ said I, ‘I am not willing to lose my name of William. As it was taken from me once against my will, I am not willing to part with it again upon any terms.’
“’Then,’ said he, ‘I will call thee William Wells Brown.’
“’So be it,’ said I; and I have been known by that name ever since I left the house of my first white friend, Wells Brown.”
Having named himself
Brown set out to transform his persona into the celebrated gentlemanly
reformer, author, and medical practitioner. As an antislavery reformer he
experimented with various formats for conveying his message - lectures,
writings including poetry, song, essays, fiction, drama, and even briefly in
Brown was an inveterant multitasker and compartmentalizer of his experiences. When you read his travelogue of his experiences in Great Britain and in France, you will find descriptions of visits to castles and cathedrals, of meetings with distinguished statesmen and authors, and of visits to graves of prominent dignitaries and poets, but rarely will you find references to his antislavery lectures that occasioned his travels and provided him with his livelihood. In fact, Brown lectured in the evenings and went sightseeing during his days of travel.
As an author, Brown experimented with various genres often recasting the same narrative into fiction and non-fiction. His experiences as a slave and his self-emancipation loomed large in his imagination and formed the core of most of his writing, except in his more general historical works.
 Ellen Richardson of
 Ibid, p.115.
 Ibid, pp. 399-403.
 The American Fugitive, pp. 235-236 ; The Black Man, pp. 29-30.
 Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins
(eds.). The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His "Strong, Manly Voice" (Collected Black Writings)
 Ibid, p. xxxvi.
 Ibid, p.xix
 William W. Brown, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. [2nd ed. 1848] (
|BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Dr. Marion Kilson, received her Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from