Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> Library of Southern Literature >> Document Menu >> Summary

William Wells Brown, 1814?-1884
Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. By William Wells Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Author of "Three Years in Europe." With a Sketch of the Author's Life
London: Partridge & Oakey, 1853.

Summary

Born on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1814, William Wells Brown was the son of a white man and an enslaved woman. Living principally in and around St. Louis, Missouri until the age of twenty, Brown was exposed to and experienced slavery amid remarkably wide-ranging conditions. William worked as a house servant and field slave and was hired out as an assistant to a tavern keeper, a printer, and the slave trader James Walker, who voyaged extensively, traveling to and from the New Orleans slave market on the Mississippi River. After at least two failed attempts, Brown did escape slavery on New Year's Day, 1834. Aided in his flight from Ohio into Canada by the Quaker Wells Brown, William adopted the man's names out of gratitude and admiration. For the next nine years, Brown worked aboard a Lake Erie steamboat while concurrently acting as an Underground Railroad conductor in Buffalo, New York.

Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. With its four American and five British editions appearing before 1850, Brown's Narrative, second in popularity only to Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, brought him international celebrity. Brown later spent several years abroad, attending a peace conference in Paris lecturing for England's antislavery movement. While in England, he published a travel narrative, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). A year later, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, widely recognized as the first African American novel, was published. As a professional writer, Brown produced a range of works, including the first African American play, The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858), two volumes of African American history, three additional versions of Clotel, and a final autobiography, My Southern Home; or, the South and Its People (1880). On November 6, 1884, William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

First published in London, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853) subsequently underwent three title changes and substantial revisions for later editions, all released during the 1860s. Interestingly, Brown opens the novel with a shortened version of his narrative entitled, "Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown"; however, he presents this account using third-person narration. In his distinct style, Brown readily blends elements from this narrative as well as various anecdotes, poetry, folk songs and ditties, vignettes of slave life, and even newspaper accounts into the novel. In promoting an abolitionist agenda, he also emphasizes the deleterious effects of slavery on the family. Drawing heavily upon the conventions of sentimental fiction, Clotel also is considered one of the earliest novels of passing—that is, a novel in which a character with African American heritage passes as white in order to escape slavery and/or enjoy greater opportunities. Brown's text includes a number of tragic mulatta (or mixed-race female) figures, although Currer, Althesa, and Clotel are the most prominent. The novel follows their three intersecting plot lines, which transpire in Natchez, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Richmond, Virginia.

Opening with the auction of Currer, the supposed mistress of Thomas Jefferson, and their two daughters, Clotel and Althesa, the novel immediately highlights the horrifying injustices rendered, particularly upon mixed-race individuals, under slavery. Whereas Clotel's white redeemer, Horatio Green, the son of a wealthy Richmond planter, purchases and marries her, both Althesa and Currer, fall into the hands of the notoriously villainous slave trader Dick Walker. Thus, while Clotel remains in relative comfort "for a time," Althesa and Currer are sold away from one another and into more degrading forms of bondage (p.212). Currer, relocated to Poplar Farm in Natchez, tragically dies from yellow fever just before Rev. John Peck's abolitionist-minded daughter, Georgiana, can emancipate her. Likewise Althesa is reduced to tragedy; despite Althesa's marriage to her white owner Henry Morton, their two daughters, upon the couple's untimely deaths, are sold into slavery.

After experiencing isolated happiness for a few blissful years, Clotel, like her mother and sister, meets a tragic end. She and Horatio initially live in secret harmony, joyously sharing in the birth of their daughter Mary; yet, Horatio's political ambitions permanently disrupt the union. Having never legally married Clotel (for mixed-race marriages were illegal in Virginia as in much of the South), Horatio soon becomes involved with a local politician's daughter. Abandoning his first wife and daughter, Horatio marries the white Gertrude, while still supporting and occasionally visiting Mary. True to the sentimental form (where increased happenstances or coincidences spell certain disaster), Clotel and Mary's existence are discovered by the new Mrs. Greene, who stumbles upon the cabin and is startled by Mary's close resemblance to her husband Horatio. Not surprisingly, she immediately demands Clotel's enslavement. With Clotel sold to Dick Walker, Gertrude takes Mary into her home as a house servant. Managing to escape while disguised as a man, the wronged mother returns to Virginia to rescue her child. Clotel, however, is discovered and imprisoned, due in large part to increased vigilance surrounding Nat Turner's slave insurrection (1831). Clotel escapes again, but rather than face further debasement, she flings herself into the Potomac River—only about a mile from the White House her father once inhabited.

In identifying Clotel and Althesa as illegitimate "heiresses" of Thomas Jefferson, Brown's invective commentary is self-evident. The vaunted president who authored the Declaration of Independence—with its assertion of shared human rights, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"—was himself a slave owner. Moreover, Jefferson participated in the sexual exploitation of his female slaves. Though Brown does not explicitly foreground the violation implied in such a relationship, he does reveal both slave owner's indifference and the slaves' humiliations. What Brown does portray, then, throughout Clotel is the pervasive, recurring victimization of black women under slavery. Even individuals of mixed-race status who attempt to pass as white nevertheless suffer horrifically. Brown also exposes the insidious intersection of economic gain and political ambition—represented by founding fathers such as Jefferson and Horatio Green—that works to preserve this "peculiar" institution. Such marked inconsistency between slavery and the United States' founding ideals severely destabilizes the country's exalted place as the bastion of democracy.

See also the entry for William Wells Brown from The Black Abolitionist Papers available on this site.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Introduction to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, New York: New American Library, 1993; Andrews, William L., To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Andrews, William L., Francis Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds., The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

Document menu