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From the Introduction to Three Classic African-American Novels (Penguin Putnam, 2003)


In November of 1853 William Wells Brown, a colleague of Frederick Douglass's in the antislavery movement and a fugitive slave himself, published a novel entitled Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. Subtitled A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, Brown's novel drew substantially on the slave narrative tradition, as did Douglass's 1853 novella The Heroic Slave. Some characters and episodes in Clotel, such as Walker the slave speculator, his servant Pompey, and the process of "getting the negroes ready for market" in New Orleans, originated in Brown's personal experience as a slave. Born in 1814 on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky, Brown spent his first twenty years mainly in St. Louis and its vicinity, working as a house servant, a fieldhand, a tavernkeeper's assistant, a printer's helper, an assistant in a medical office, and finally a handyman for James Walker, a notorious Missouri slave trader with whom Brown made three trips down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Before he escaped from slavery on New Year's Day, 1834, Brown had seen and experienced slavery from almost every perspective, an education that he would put to good use when he wrote Clotel.

After working for nine years as a steamboatman on Lake Erie and conductor for the Underground Railroad in Buffalo, New York, Brown became a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-slavery Society in 1843. Moving to Boston in 1847, he published his Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, the first of more than a dozen books and pamphlets credited to his pen. Brown's slave narrative was second in popularity and sales only to Douglass's Narrative of 1845. In 1849 Brown went abroad to attend an international peace conference in Paris and to lend his voice to the antislavery crusade in England. In addition to his demanding speaking schedule, he found time to write the first travel book by an African-American, Three Years in Europe (1852), and Clotel, both of which were well-received by English readers and reviewers. After returning to the United States in 1854, Brown continued his pioneering literary work, publishing The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), the first drama by an African-American. During the 1860s he published three more versions of Clotel and two volumes of black history, one of which, The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), is the first military history of the African-American in the United States. For his multiple contributions to literature, Brown is remembered today as black America's first important man of letters.

In his preface to Clotel, Brown presents his novel as a multi-layered expose designed "to lay bare the institution" of slavery to the popular gaze and then "to fasten the guilt" for slavery "on those who move in a higher circle" of political and economic power. The slave traders, the overseers, the drivers, and the kidnappers were almost universally execrated by antislavery speakers and writers, but in Brown's view these were only the tools of injustice—he wants to identify those "persons in high places" who were truly responsible for the curse of slavery on America. In the first chapter of his novel, Brown appropriates a long-standing rumor in American politics, which first surfaced in print in 1802, that Thomas Jefferson had fathered several children by a slave mistress. By identifying his heroine, Clotel, as the beautiful daughter of Jefferson, sold at auction without the slightest sign of concern by her father, Brown argued from the beginning of his novel that the very architect of American freedom, the author of the Declaration of Independence (whose most famous phrase provides an ironic epigraph to Clotel), was a traitor to his own ideals. Brown's purpose in attacking Jefferson was not simply to unmask a hypocrite in high places, however; it was to point out a characteristic contradiction in American life, which the remainder of his novel illustrates extensively. The United States as pictured in Clotel is so corrupted by racism that its leaders, North and South, are fast losing their ability to perceive the conflict between the country's professed ideals of freedom, equality, and justice and its near-universal practice of slavery, caste discrimination, and economic exploitation.

While the hero of Frederick Douglass's Heroic Slave is a decidedly black man, the major African-American characters in Clotel are all very light-complexioned people of color. Clotel herself has sometimes been labeled a stereotype of the "tragic mulatta," a pervasive figure in popular nineteenth-century American fiction and drama distinguished by her beauty, her idealism, her barely traceable African ancestry, and her inevitable disappointments in love. These qualities are all applicable to Clotel, but they do not sum up her character. Although passive and pathetic in the first part of the novel, she turns into an active and combative figure towards the end of her story, conceiving of a daring plan for escaping slavery, adopting a male disguise, and after making her way north, setting out in quest of a daughter whom slavery has taken away from her. The fulfilling marriage of Clotel's sister Althesa to a white man also defies a convention of tragic mulatto fiction in America, which consistently denied the moral legitimacy or social advisability of racial intermarriage. Another mulatto character, George Green, gives a speech justifying slave revolution that is more uncompromising than anything Douglass's heroic slave has to say about the morality of violence in pursuit of freedom. It is worth noting, moreover, that the moral leader among the white characters of Brown's novel is a woman who refuses to bow to male intellectual or political authority and who converts her husband "from the mere theory of liberty" to the radical idea (for most mid-century Americans) of immediate emancipation for all slaves. The difference between Brown's Georgiana Carlton, a thoughtful, socially engaged woman, and her counterpart in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the ethereal, quintessentially innocent child-angel, Eva, suggests that the black author did not assume, as Stowe apparently did, that moral idealism was incompatible with practical activism in adult real-world experience.

Like many of their literary contemporaries during the renaissance of American writing in the 1850s, Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown felt it was not only their right but their obligation to create characters that epitomized the ideals of their people, i.e., aspiring African-American men and women. The superior mulatta heroines of Brown's novel were designed to furnish positive images of black womanhood to a white American readership that saw mostly the defamation of African-American character in newspapers, magazines, and books. Yet if realism as modern readers understand it was not a priority in Brown's portrayal of his heroines, Clotel did not altogether omit consideration of more down-to-earth black people. Readers of Clotel should not overlook the attention given to Sam, a servant in the home of Georgiana Carlton, who on one occasion opens himself up to ridicule because of the color consciousness he has imbibed from whites. If Sam is prone to self-deception on this account, however, he has also the wit to practice deceit on whites when necessary, as Georgiana's husband learns after the death of his father-in-law. Sam puts on a solemn and downcast look for Parson Peck's family, but among his own people he sings a comic ditty in celebration of the demise of hypocritical minister. The apparently crude dialect of some of the minor black characters of Clotel serves as an incisive commentary on some of the highfalutin, but often insincere, speeches made by the more privileged characters in the novel.

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