Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814. His mother, an enslaved woman called Elizabeth, was owned by a Dr. John Young; his father was Dr. Young's brother. From the age of twelve, Brown was hired out to work in many different trades. In 1832 he fled slavery with his mother, but they were recaptured. Young subsequently sold Brown's mother to a slave trader going South and Brown to a businessman. On January 1, 1834, Brown escaped again, this time to Ohio, where he was helped on his way by a Quaker called Wells Brown. The escapee took Wells Brown as his last names, becoming William Wells Brown. In Cleveland, he found work at an abolitionist printing office, married, and started a family.
Brown's wife had died in the United States while he was abroad. He married again and made his home in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. He published a second version of Clotel in 1860, a third in 1864, and a fourth in 1867. He continued to lecture in the North and to investigate in the South. He published more books, reworking and recycling favorite material. On November 6, 1884, Brown died in Boston.
Plot Summary (1853 version)
Clotel's price is cried up on the grounds of her youth, beauty, virginity, and Christianity. The auctioneer does not mention the fact that she is the daughter of a president. No auctioneer would make such a cry in Richmond: miscegenation was against the law, and Jefferson was held to be a model Virginian. Brown ends the first chapter of his novel by writing: "Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder!"
Clotel is purchased by Horatio Green, the son of a wealthy Richmond planter, who then marries her. Dick Walker, an evil slave trader, buys Clotel's mother and sister and then sells the two women to two different owners. Currer is sold to the Reverend John Peck, of Natchez, Mississippi. She dies of yellow fever before Peck's daughter Georgiana, an abolitionist, can free her. Althesa is sold to Henry Morton, who marries her and fathers her two daughters. But when Althesa and her husband die suddenly, their daughters are sold into slavery.
In addition to the narrative, Brown added documentary material—newspaper articles, notices, bills, posters, and advertisements—to contextualize his novel for a British readership that knew little about slavery. Many of these items came from Theodore Weld's American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of A Thousand Witnesses (1839). This extranarrative material makes up nearly a third of the original Clotel.
Later Versions of Clotel
Brown was a thrifty writer. When he returned to the United States in 1854, he set about recycling materials previously published in England: Three Years in Europe, a travel book, and his Narrative. In 1860 he turned to the business of recycling Clotel. Brown published the book three more times, once in New York and then twice in Boston. Each time he gave the book a new title, used a new publisher, and adapted the plot. In all iterations, the novel locates much of its action in Virginia, but gradually Jefferson disappears from the telling.
The second version of Clotel was published in installments in the New York newspaper the Weekly Anglo-African from December 1860 to March 1861. Brown published it under the title Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon. A Romance of American Slavery, Founded on Fact. In it, Brown removed the documentary material that appeared in the 1853 Clotel except for epigraphs taken from abolitionist poetry and song. The additional context this material had provided to British readers was unnecessary for the readers of the Weekly Anglo African, an abolitionist newspaper. Brown also changed the name of Clotel's daughter from Mary to Miralda, giving the title role to a character whose story ends in happy marriage, not tragic death. And Miralda is not a daughter of Thomas Jefferson, but "a descendant."
The 1867 Clotel was published as a hardcover. It is nearly identical to its predecessor except for its title—Clotelle; or The Colored Heroine, A Tale of the Southern States—and the addition of four chapters. In them, Clotelle and her husband return from Europe to the United States. Her husband dies a hero's death in the American Civil War (1861–1865). The widowed Clotelle makes her home on a plantation where she was once a slave and "where at this writing,—now June, 1867" she resides. Brown reinstated neither the abolitionist text nor the references to Jefferson.
The evolution from the 1853 Clotel to the 1867 Clotel reflects the passage of time and a changing readership. In 1853, under the Fugitive Slave Act, the abolitionist campaign was at a low point, while 1860 saw the election of Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of secession. By 1864, the goals of the abolitionist movement were becoming real. The slaves in the secessionist states had been emancipated, and the Union was on its way to victory.
Clotel is considered the first African American novel. Its publication in 1853 is remarkably early compared to the publication of the first southern novel, John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn, or, a Sojourn in the Old Dominion, in 1832. Considering that whites arrived in Jamestown in 1607, twelve years earlier than blacks, and the oppression, slavery, and denial that Africans in America faced, the twenty-one-year gap between Kennedy's and Brown's novels narrows to almost nothing.
Clotel's reception is as mixed a story as its publication. This is reflected in the very different reactions of the work's nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and twenty-first-century readerships.
There is close to nothing by way of direct record regarding the reception of Clotel in the nineteenth century. The novel appeared in London in 1853, in New York in 1860–1861, in Boston in 1864, and again in Boston in 1867. It may have been reviewed, but no reviews have been found. And, as the scholar Henry Louis Gates has noted, "black fiction was not popularly reviewed." But the fact that four editors published Brown's novel, apparently as a new novel each time, is evidence both of Clotel's worthiness as a book and of a lack of critical reaction of which successive editors were aware. For example, scholars can infer that Thomas Hamilton, the editor of New York Weekly Anglo-African, thought well enough of Miralda, or The Beautiful Quadroon to publish it in sixteen installments between December 1860 and March 1861. But what the readers of The Weekly Anglo-African thought of Miralda does not exist in the public record.
Twentieth-century scholars and critics recognized Clotel's importance as the first African American novel but were indifferent or even hostile to Brown's abilities as a writer. Blyden Jackson, in A History of Afro-American Literature (1989), recognized Brown's work as the first in a black novelistic tradition but wrote that Clotel "cannot pretend to be great fiction, novelistic or otherwise. Everyone agrees on that." Some critics even found Brown contemptible. The literary critic Addison Gayle Jr. wrote in his book The Black Aesthetic (1971) that Brown had surrendered "his racial identity to the American Mephistopheles for a pittance that Faust would have labeled demeaning." Gayle centered black culture, identity, and power in his work. For him, it was a sorry thing that the first African American novel was Brown's sentimental Clotel and not Martin R. Delaney's revolutionary Blake, or, the Huts of America (1859–1861). Looking for anger in the first African American novel, Gayle found forgiveness; where he looked for blackness, he found whiteness.
Critics who centered whiteness also had a problem with Clotel. Those who ascribed to New Criticism, a movement that demanded close reading of text, disregard of biography, and discounting of history, found no virtue in the book. In his 1932 book The Negro Author, the Columbia University professor Vernon Loggins wrote that "the great weakness of Clotel is that enough material for a dozen novels is crowded into its two hundred and forty-five pages." In his 1969 study William Wells Brown and Clotelle: A Portrait of the Artist in the First Negro Novel, J. Noel Heermance calls the book "a hodge-podge." Like most readers attempting a traditional reading of Brown's work, Heermance favored the 1864 Clotel: the "edition which gives us an understanding of the artist." No one championed the 1867 Clotel, and there were no readings of Miralda.
Twenty-first-century reception of Brown, however, has been stimulated by new readings of Clotel. In 2006 the University of Virginia Press published the four versions of the book as Clotel, by William Wells Brown: An Electronic Scholarly Edition. For the first time, a full comparative reading of all four versions became possible.
ca. 1814 - William Wells Brown is born in Lexington, Kentucky.
1834 - William Wells Brown escapes to Ohio, where he finds work in an abolitionist printing office and marries Elizabeth Schooner.
1847 - William Wells Brown publishes the Narrative of William Wells Brown, a fugitive slave, written by himself.
July 18, 1849 - William Wells Brown sails from Boston to Liverpool, England, to replace Frederick Douglass as a lecturer on the abolition circuit.
September 18, 1850 - President Millard Fillmore signs the Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850. It expands the number of federal officials empowered to act as commissioners for the purposes of hearing fugitive-slave cases.
1851 - Elizabeth Schooner Brown dies in the United States while her husband, William Wells Brown, is waylaid in England because of the Fugitive Slave Act.
1853 - William Wells Brown publishes Clotel: or the President's Daughter.
July 7, 1854 - Abolitionists pay $300 to secure William Wells Brown's freedom from Enoch Price.
1859 - William Wells Brown publishes the Memoir of William Wells Brown, an American Bondman, Written by Himself.
April 12, 1860 - William Wells Brown marries Annie Elizabeth Gray of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts.
December 1, 1860 - Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon, by William Wells Brown, begins appearing in installments in the New York Weekly Anglo-African.
1864 - William Wells Brown publishes Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States.
1867 - William Wells Brown publishes The Negro in the American Rebellion, his heroism and his fidelity, and Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine. A Tale of the Southern States.
1880 - William Wells Brown publishes My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People.
November 6, 1884 - William Wells Brown dies in Boston, Massachusetts.
1969 - Clotel: or the President's Daughter (1853) and Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States (1864), by William Wells Brown, are reprinted.
2006 - The University of Virginia Press publishes the four versions of William Wells Brown's Clotel as Clotel, by William Wells Brown: An Electronic Scholarly Edition.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Mulvey, C. Clotel; or the President's Daughter (1853). (2019, January 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Daughter_Clotel_or_the_President_s_1853.
- MLA Citation:
Mulvey, Christopher. "Clotel; or the President's Daughter (1853)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Jan. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 27, 2018 | Last modified: January 4, 2019