A spoiler notice for students of African American literature was pointless for the ending of Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” now showing on Netflix. The same can be said of William Wells Brown’s novel “Clotel.” In fact, the two books have in common the issue of color and its significance to the outcome of its main characters. It should also be noted that both Larsen and Brown were mulattos and that experience may have had some bearing on their literary outlooks and productions.
In our column last week Larsen and her novel were discussed, and Brown gets a similar treatment this week. There is no exact date of Brown’s birth, but it was apparently somewhere around 1814 or 1815 in Montgomery County, Kentucky near the town of Mount Sterling. At the age of 19, he and his mother escaped from slavery and fled to Ohio. Later, he settled in Boston and began a total dedication to the abolitionist movement, a commitment that was also an impetus to a writing career which was often compared to his contemporary, Frederick Douglass, with whom he feuded publicly.
Brown spent his early years in St. Louis where he was often hired out by his master to work on steamboats that plied the Mississippi River. From this vantage point and form of labor he acquired a broader perspective of life in the region as well as the means of escape. No longer in bondage, he changed his name and fell under the influence and tutoring of Quakers who enhanced his desire to learn and helped facilitate a job with the printer Elijah Lovejoy.
From 1836 to 1845, Brown lived in Buffalo, New York and continued his work on steamboats on Lake Erie. In this capacity he assisted numerous fugitives in their escape from bondage ferrying them to a terminal point in Detroit and then onto Canada. All the while he was an outspoken member of the Negro Convention Movement that flowered during the years prior to emancipation. He was a popular speaker at various events and traveled extensively on behalf of the organization. In 1849, he left the U.S. with his daughters and continued his anti-slavery speeches abroad, particularly in England and France. Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made it impossible for him to return to the states and even created difficulties for him in Europe where slave catchers were on the prowl.
Along with his involvement in the crusade to end slavery, Brown was an advocate of prison reform and played a prominent role in women’s suffrage and the anti-tobacco movement. This activism did not impede his literary aspirations and in 1853, he wrote “Clotel” which is considered the first novel by an African American, though it was first published in England. He was living and lecturing in England when the book was issued and a year later his freedom was purchased by a British couple. He used this newfound freedom to return to the U.S. with his two daughters. Upon his return, he married for the second time to Anna Elizabeth Gray. Elizabeth Schooner, his first wife, was the mother of his two daughters, Clarissa and Josephine.
During his stay in Europe, Brown used his down time to write, which included a wide range of literary productions, initially a travel book that had a great utility for those venturing abroad. In 1847, he had already published a memoir, the “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself,” which rivaled Douglass’ autobiography as a best seller. In the book he strongly assailed the slave owners’ and their brutal violence that was in contradiction to their supposed Christian beliefs. Then, in rapid succession, came “Clotel,” “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom,” one of the first plays written by an African American, and by 1867, an expansive history of the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. He was a prolific writer and his essays, reviews, and short stories increased his popularity and made him an acclaimed speaker in demand at various conventions, rallies, and organizational events.
In effect, he became a household name and later was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame that was established in 2013. A public school in Lexington, Kentucky is named in his honor and a historic public marker is at the approximate location of his home in Buffalo. He died in 1884 in Massachusetts.