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From the Introduction to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 2003.)


William Wells Brown was born in 1814 on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky, the son of a white man and a slave woman. Light-complexioned and quick-witted, William spent his first twenty years mainly in St. Louis, Missouri, and its vicinity, working as a house servant, a field hand, a tavernkeeper's assistant, a printer's helper, an assistant in a medical office, and finally as a handyman for James Walker, a Missouri slave trader with whom Brown claimed to have made three trips up and down the Mississippi River between St. Louis and the New Orleans slave market. Before he escaped from slavery on New Year's Day, 1834, this unusually well-traveled slave had seen and experienced slavery from almost every perspective, an education that he would put to good use throughout his literary career.

After seizing his freedom, Brown (who received his middle and last name from an Ohio Quaker who helped him get to Canada) worked for nine years as a steamboatman on Lake Erie and a conductor for the Underground Railroad in Buffalo, New York. In 1843, the fugitive slave became a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Moving to Boston in 1847, he wrote the first, and still the most famous, version of his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself, which went through four American and five British editions before 1850, earning its author international fame. Brown's Narrative was exceeded in popularity and sales only by the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

In 1848, the second edition of Brown's Narrative, slightly but significantly revised and expanded by a lengthy appendix, was published in a printing of two thousand, which quickly sold out. A third edition followed, and in May of 1849 a fourth, expanded once again. In the same year 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 try his hand at a new form of first-person narrative, which he entitled Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). This was the first travel book authored by an African American; it was favorably received by the British press in general, as well as by the American antislavery press. A year later Clotel, generally regarded as the first African American novel, was published, prefaced by a lengthy "Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown." Although written in the third person as though by a biographer, this installment of Brown's life, which included a good deal of information on his experiences in the North and in England, was more than likely his own creation.

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. In The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), Brown reworked parts of his life story once again, prefacing the book with a "memoir of the author" that shed new light on his boyhood experiences as the bodyservant of his master's son. The Black Man also contains "A Man without a Name," a short story premised on the biographical fact that the name Brown's mother gave him was later denied him by his owners. Through this fictionalization of his life as a slave and a fugitive, Brown revised his story into something that could represent the lives of many whose names would never be known to history.

Brown's final autobiography, My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People (1880), returned again to the scene of Brown's experience as a slave, not so much to retrace his own steps from bondage to freedom but rather to characterize from an intimate perspective the complex interrelationships between blacks and whites that made the South, both before and after the Civil War, the kind of "home" that Brown could neither embrace nor expunge from his memory. My Southern Home went through three editions in its first three years of existence. Historians of African American literature have praised My Southern Home as Brown's most finished book, a fitting capstone to the literary monument he built for himself during a writing career that spanned four of the most turbulent decades of American history. William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on November 6, 1884.

Perhaps more than any other text of its kind, the Narrative of William W. Brown typifies in its subject matter and development the basic plot structure of the antebellum slave narrative. Brown begins with three chapters on his childhood and gradual initiation into the horrors of slavery. In Chapters 4 through 7 he comes to a mature realization of his condition as a slave, which leads to his resolution to try to seize his freedom. Chapter 8 ends with a failed escape attempt that testifies not only to Brown's dedication to freedom but also to his commitment to his mother. Brown then recalls a kind of dark night of the soul in Chapter 9, occasioned by his visit to his mother just before she is to be sold away from him forever. Although profoundly desperate over the loss of his mother and sister, Brown still does not give up hope. Instead he plots his climactic escape, which is recounted in suspenseful detail in Chapters 10 and 11. With freedom attained, the narrative concludes with Brown actively engaged in antislavery work as a lecturer for a branch of William Lloyd Garrison's American Anti-Slavery Society.

Though in many ways Brown's story may be read as a paradigm of the genre in which he wrote, his manner of telling that story is more distinctively his own. Compared to the highly self-conscious rhetorical flourishes of Frederick Douglass's narrative, Brown's decidedly understated, restrained, almost deadpan, manner of recounting his life seems artless. The letter from abolitionist Edmund Quincy that serves as an introduction to Brown's Narrative stresses how much the white man "marvelled at" Brown's "simplicity and calmness" in describing scenes that cried out for powerful feeling. Anyone familiar with Brown's antislavery speeches knew that he was quite adept at verbal appeals to the moral outrage of his readers. But as J. C. Hathaway comments in his preface to the Narrative, Brown also understood that by writing with "simplicity and ingenuousness" he could set forward "many harrowing scenes" of slavery without jeopardizing his reader's "conviction of the truthfulness of the picture."

Brown's manner of self-presentation also resisted the example set by the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. More than any previous writer Douglass had engendered what a later critic has called "the heroic fugitive school of American literature," in which a black rugged individualist struggles against the oppressiveness of bondage, dedicates himself singlemindedly to freedom, and overcomes all obstacles that stand between him and the goal of his indomitable striving. The turning point of Douglass's story evokes the traditional heroic ideal of male combat: the teenaged Douglass battles hand-to-hand with the slave-breaker, Edward Covey, with nothing less than what Douglass termed his "manhood" hanging in the balance. Having wrested his sense of potential, pride, and worthiness for freedom from the tyrannical white man, the formerly humiliated slave is transformed into a heroic resister, a man with a mission that must inevitably triumph.

Brown seems to have almost deliberately refused to identify himself according to Douglass's myth of the heroic resister. From the outset of Brown's Narrative, the reader encounters admirable black men who pit themselves physically and morally against ruthless slaveowners in an effort to attain human dignity. Yet invariably they fail. The slaves who succeed against these overwhelming odds are those who learn how to use guile and deception to protect and advance their interests. Brown makes it clear that he too was a slave trickster, savvy enough to profess to his master's wife a matrimonial desire for a slave woman whom he did not love in order to divert his owners' attention away from his much stronger attachment to the idea of freedom. Even after an abortive escape attempt, when confronted with an exasperated, threatening master, Brown refuses to back down from a combat of wits. When his master demands to know why he has run away, Brown reminds the white man that he himself had authorized the slave to seek out a "good master" to whom he could hire his time for wages. So, with uppity logic, the slave maintains that he had done just that. "I had acted according to his orders. He had told me to look for a master, and I had been to look for one." The master is so disarmed by his slave's nervy reply to his bullying question that he can only answer that "he did not tell me to go to Canada to look for a master."

In sparring matches like this one, where the slave uses his wits to assert that he is and must be his own master, Brown testifies to a key element of real-world, day-to-day master-slave relationships. Only rarely did a violent physical confrontation resolve the tensions that underlay the slave's and the master's perpetual struggle for authority and power on the plantation. Much more typically the slave used a kind of mental jujitsu, similar to the tactics of the slaves' folk hero, Brer Rabbit, to deceive or divert his oppressors, thereby seizing mastery of the moment and gaining a measure of opportunity and freedom. Thus it is often the ordinary, the representative, and the non-heroic—even the anti-heroic—that comes to the fore in Brown's Narrative. Yet in Brown's willingness to focus on himself as a slave trickster and to explore the contradictions between a slave's survival ethic and the dominant morality of his time, the reader discovers in him a striking brand of realism.

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