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Review: ‘William Wells Brown’ captures a former slave’s literary achievements

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Frederick Douglass, the slave who secured his freedom and became a prolific writer, a vociferous abolitionist and a staunch supporter of women’s rights, is the most recognized African American man of the 19th century. Yet William Wells Brown, whose life, career and activism remain largely understudied, is a similarly significant figure in our literary and cultural history. His importance is made clear in “William Wells Brown,” a new volume from the Library of America edited by Ezra Greenspan, that showcases the breath of Brown’s literary and political career throughout six decades of the 19th century.

To Greenspan’s credit, the organization of this volume, with its light editorial commentary, allows readers to encounter Brown by first reading his own words. The collection includes his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave”; his novel “Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter”; his travelogue, “The American Fugitive in Europe”; a play called “The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom”; his historiographical biography “The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements”; and other sketches and speeches. All these pieces were written at a time when African American writers typically needed a preface by a white patron to “authenticate the narrative,” to verify that the African American writer had, in fact, written the text. Encountering Brown’s works here without an outsider’s editorial voice intruding helps this collection function as a freestanding, culturally rich historical archive for readers to excavate for themselves.

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Born into slavery circa 1814 in Lexington, Ky., Brown finally secured his freedom on Jan. 1, 1834, with the assistance of a Quaker couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown. This freedom, however, was tenuous because, as Brown informs readers in “The American Fugitive,” he was “liable to be seized and again reduced to whips and chains” at any moment. Therefore, after attending the International Peace Congress in Paris in 1849, where he went to gain international support for the anti-slavery movement, Brown remained abroad until 1854, when friends purchased his freedom.

Brown’s contribution to the abolitionist movement ranged from his work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Buffalo to the publication of “Narrative of William W. Brown” (1847) and his international anti-slavery lectures. Like his contemporaries Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper , Brown did not stop campaigning for African Americans’ civil rights after Emancipation. From the antebellum period through Reconstruction, Brown used his pen to insert African Americans into the body politic in at least two ways. First, the act of writing itself challenged the notion that African Americans were at the bottom of the Great Chain of Being and therefore unable to think like other races in the human species. Second, Brown’s literature provided a cultural space in which to challenge stereotypes about black people and to write them into history — which helped change the course of that history.

Readers will find here the very best of Brown’s work: “Narrative” focused on his life in enslavement, underscoring the hypocrisy of slaveholding Christians and tracing the development of his desire for freedom. “Clotel,” his only novel, demonstrated how concepts of beauty based on skin tones became a curse to enslaved black women. Although the story examined the problems that “tragic mulattas” encounter, it defied 19th-century conventions by refusing to portray Clotel as a victim. Instead, Brown showed her making significant choices to shape her life.

In “The American Fugitive,” Brown contrasted American slavery with the warm reception he received in various European countries to demonstrate that enslaved African Americans lacked the privileges enjoyed by even the most disenfranchised groups abroad. In “The Escape,” Brown dramatized how the institution of slavery forced African Americans and whites to play racial roles that have ingrained white privilege in American society. The ending, when the enslaved escapes by “leaping” to freedom, reminded readers that the Fugitive Slave Law made freedom a particularly risky position for African Americans.

And, finally, “The Black Man” begins with Brown reestablishing Africa as a cradle of civilization and intellect. He contests the notion that Africa is a dark continent, bereft of history, culture and innovation. As does David Walker in his “Appeal” (1829), Brown suggests that slavery is the institution responsible for any intellectual and cultural deficiencies that black people might have, and then he charts the accomplishments of more than 30 black (not only African American) men.

Overall, “William Wells Brown” is as comprehensive in scope as it is meticulous in research. Anyone reading it will find Greenspan’s chronology and notes on the texts important and useful for engaging with this pioneering figure in 19th-century American letters and culture.

Patterson is the author of “Exodus Politics: Civil Rights and Leadership in African American Literature and Culture” and an assistant professor of English and director of the African American studies program at Georgetown University.

WILLIAM WELLS BROWN

Clotel & Other Writings

Edited by Ezra Greenspan

Library of America. 1,042 pp. $40

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