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William Wells Brown, 1814?-1884
Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself
Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.


Born on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1814, William Wells Brown was the son of a white man and an enslaved woman. Living principally in and around St. Louis, Missouri until the age of twenty, Brown was exposed to and experienced slavery amid remarkably wide-ranging conditions. William worked as a house servant and field slave and was hired out as an assistant to a tavern keeper, a printer, and the slave trader James Walker, who voyaged extensively, traveling to and from the New Orleans slave market on the Mississippi River. After at least two failed attempts, Brown did escape slavery on New Year's Day, 1834. Aided in his flight from Ohio into Canada by the Quaker Wells Brown, William adopted the man's names out of gratitude and admiration. For the next nine years, Brown worked aboard a Lake Erie steamboat while concurrently acting as an Underground Railroad conductor in Buffalo, New York.

Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. With its four American and five British editions appearing before 1850, Brown's Narrative, second in popularity only to Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, brought him international celebrity. Brown later spent several years abroad, attending a peace conference in Paris lecturing for England's antislavery movement. While in England, he published a travel narrative, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). A year later, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, widely recognized as the first African American novel, was published. As a professional writer, Brown produced a range of works, including the first African American play, The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858), two volumes of African American history, three additional versions of Clotel, and a final autobiography, My Southern Home; or, the South and Its People (1880). On November 6, 1884, William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

As William Wells Brown's first published work and his most widely read autobiography, the 1847 Narrative occupies an important place within not only his oeuvre but also the broader African American literary tradition. Brown would draw directly from the text in many of his later works, among them Clotel, The Escape, and My Southern Home. Preceding this account of Brown's life, however, are two letters and a preface. The first letter William Wells Brown himself writes in thanks to "Wells Brown, of Ohio" (iii), while the second, written by Edmund Quincy, remarks upon the variety of Brown's experiences and praises the manuscript's "simplicity and calmness" (vi). Following J. C. Hathaway's Preface, largely an appeal on behalf of the abolitionist cause, Brown opens his narrative noting that his father was the white George Higgins, a relative of his master, and that his enslaved mother, Elizabeth, had given birth to seven children, each with a different father. In doing so, Brown immediately draws attention to the plight of mixed-race individuals as well as the tenuous nature of slave families.

Brown's earliest memories are of serving as a house servant, first near Lexington, Kentucky, and then in Missouri. Later, when his master, Dr. Young, pursues his political career and is absent from the plantation, Young subjects his slaves to the cruel tyranny of Mr. Cook, the overseer. Once Dr. Young relocates to just outside St. Louis, both Brown and his mother are hired out. Working under the harsh Major Freeland, he first attempts escape; yet, the young Brown is treed quickly by hounds and severely whipped upon his return. Brown's narrative includes a veritable catalogue of slaves' violent mistreatment at the hands of brutally vicious masters and overseers. Yet, while recounting these horrors, Brown maintains a strong narrative voice that highlights the ability of the narrator to employ literary stylistics to promote his story. On more than one occasion, the narrator—while recounting details of this abuse—comments on the particular unparalleled cruelty of northern slave owners. In a similarly ironic vein, Brown exposes the hypocrisy of so-called "Christian masters." Tongue-in-cheek, he discusses when his master "got religion," which resulted in the immediate cessation of all Sunday leisure activities for slaves. The master also hired a preacher who offered diatribes on slaves' duties to their masters. Brown also comments wryly on his master and mistress's fondness for mint juleps, particularly during morning prayers.

Having previously served on a steamboat under William B. Culver, Brown is later hired out to the notorious slave trader, Mr. James Walker. Accompanying Walker from St. Louis to New Orleans on several trips aboard a steamboat, Brown's primary responsibility involves readying the slaves for market. These elaborate preparations include disguising their true age by plucking any gray hairs or, if there are too many, employing a blacking process. Although the slave trader forces Brown's complicity in such falsification, Brown himself emerges as the proverbial trickster figure in the Narrative, as he frequently relies on guile and deception for survival. In one incident, Brown overfills several visiting gentlemen's wineglasses, causing them to spill wine on themselves. Embarrassed and enraged, Walker sends Brown to the Vicksburg jailer with a note detailing Brown's punishment: a whipping. Yet the clever Brown, having discerned the note's contents through a sailor's aid, tricks a free man into running the errand for him. When this hapless victim returns, having been severely beaten, Brown offers the man fifty cents in exchange for the jailer's note, which attests to having administered twenty lashes. Wetting his face to approximate tears, Brown gleefully returns to Walker, bearing the note without having suffered the punishment described therein. In commenting on this past event, Brown criticizes the institution of slavery, which "makes its victims lying and mean; for which vices it afterwards reproaches them, and uses them as arguments to prove that they deserve no better fate. I have often, since my escape, deeply regretted the deception I practised [sic] upon this poor fellow . . . [and] his vicarious sufferings in my behalf " (p. 57-58).

It is through a similar performance that Brown ultimately secures his freedom. While working as a carriage driver for Captain Enoch Price, the beguiling Brown again caters to his audience: the captain and his wife. As Mrs. Price encourages Brown to take a wife—first promoting his romantic attachment to Maria and later fixing upon the actual object of his affections, Eliza—Brown disingenuously promises to marry Eliza in the very near future; in truth, he has no such intention, knowing that he never could abandon a wife to slavery. He likewise pretends to detest all free states, whereby he secures his place on a trip to Ohio. As a result, Brown manages to escape on January 1, 1834. With the help of his namesake, he makes his way first to Cleveland, Ohio, where he waits for Lake Erie to thaw before crossing over into Canada. While working as a waiter, Brown pursues a path of self-education, purchasing and reading books as well as subscribing to an anti-slavery newspaper. As the autobiography closes, Brown notes his subscription to William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator and his continuing work on behalf of his still-enslaved brethren.

See also the entry for William Wells Brown from The Black Abolitionist Papers available on this site.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., Introduction to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, New York: New American Library, 1993; Andrews, William L., To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Andrews, William L., Francis Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds., The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Mary Alice Kirkpatrick

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