Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Related titles >> From the Introduction to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man:
The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown
(by W. L. Andrews

From the Introduction to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown (New York: New American Library, 1993.)

Used by permission of the editor.

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.

My Southern Home appeared at the beginning of the 1880s, a decade that ushered in the literature of the New South riding a wave of popular nostalgia for romanticized images of life on the plantation before the Civil War. The title Brown chose for his last book is faintly redolent of the sentimentality lavished on New South idealizations of the Old South era. Calling the South his "home" seems incongruous for a former fugitive slave who, after escaping the South in 1834, never tried to return to live there again. In keeping with his unpredictable kind of realism, however, Brown's preface warns that he will not indulge his readers' emotions, nor will he transform the people of his past into "heroes or heroines." Instead Brown seems intent on treating the people of the plantation, whites and blacks alike, with a fairly democratic brand of comic caricature. In the opening chapters of My Southern Home, readers are introduced to a number of southern character types—the indulgent master, the pompous preacher, the witty slave, the beautiful quadroon, the hypocritical slave trader, and so forth—along with some of the more picturesque elements of traditional southern local color, such as slave songs, corn-shucking verbal games, and hoodoo practices.  With the exception of the speculators in slaves, the antebellum whites are not pictured as inhuman or depraved by their status as slave masters.  What disqualifies them from the authority that white New South writers accorded the plantation master and mistress is not so much a moral blot as a comic predilection for self-deception.  Dr. Gaines and his wife, the master and mistress of Poplar Farm, the center of the action in the first half of My Southern Home, are made ridiculous by the ironic disparity between their actual behavior and the myths that they appropriate from southern tradition to help them aggrandize themselves in the eyes of a society much less genteel than it makes itself out to be.

In My Southern Home the unmaking, or rather, the unmasking of the pretentions of white mastery on the antebellum plantation goes hand in hand with black attempts to become masters of their own fate, often at the expense of their owners. In chapter after chapter of the book, the narrator records instances of the witty guilefulness and resistance to masterly authority endemic among Gaines's slaves.  The narrator recalls that "most of the negroes on 'Poplar Farm'. . . thought that to deceive the whites was a religious duty."  The master and mistress "were easily deceived by their servants."  A quick-witted slave like Cato, who appears repeatedly in My Southern Home, plays a role in Gaines's household similar to that of a court fool in one of Shakespeare's plays.  When called upon to toast his master, he does so in a mocking bit of doggerel:

"De big bee flies high,
De little bee makes de honey,
De black man raise de cotton,
An' de white man gets de money."

That Cato only plays the fool becomes clear in his successful hoodwinking of slavecatchers and a treacherous fellow slave who vainly try to stop him from escaping to freedom later in the narrative. 

Dinkie, the resident conjurer on Poplar Farm, could give lessons to his master in the art of the mystification of authority.  Dinkie alone among all the men on the plantation does no work, yet he commands universal respect from both whites and blacks because he knows how to turn their superstitious fears of the devil to his own advantage. Dinkie's only weapon is talk, but against his powers of suggestion even a hard-bitten overseer loses his nerve.  The conjure man "was his own master" because he played the role better than Dr. Gaines did and enforced his authority more convincingly than either the doctor or his overseer. 

Capping Brown's image of an antebellum South that recognizes no higher authority than self-preservation is Pompey, the servant of the Mississippi slave trader James Walker.  Walker's practice is to cheat prospective buyers of his merchandise by advertising slaves as younger and healthier than they actually are.  Pompey carries out his master's will by teaching the advertised slaves how to lie about their ages and conditions.  Pompey assures the whites who deal with him that there is "no bogus" about him, but when his master decides to have him flogged in the New Orleans slave prison because of carelessness, Pompey proves himself a master practitioner, as well as teacher, of the art of self-misrepresentation. First he tricks a black freeman into taking his punishment; then he tricks his master into thinking that he received the beating that Walker intended for him. 

My Southern Home recounts the struggles for power and prestige among whites and blacks in the slaveocracy in a deadpan, detached tone that seldom betrays the narrator's identification or sympathy with anyone, black or white, in his memories of the South. When compared to Brown's Narrative, written more than thirty years earlier, My Southern Home seems carefully designed to de-individualize the narrator, to distance his voice and his experience from that of William Wells Brown. Crucial aspects of Brown's life as a slave that were prominently featured in the Narrative, such as the whipping of his mother when Brown was only a child, go unmentioned in My Southern Home. Dr. and Mrs. Gaines appear to be modeled on Dr. John Young and his wife Martha, on whose farm just outside St. Louis, Missouri, Brown grew up. But the indulgent tone that the narrator takes in characterizing Dr. Gaines and his treatment of his slaves is missing in Brown's antebellum autobiographies. Other key episodes in the Narrative, such as the time Brown spent working for Walker, the slave trader, or the incident in which he tricked a free Negro into taking a beating meant for himself, are reworked in My Southern Home into the life of a semi-fictional character, Pompey, who made his first appearance in Brown's 1853 novel, Clotel. What the veiled narrator of My Southern Home implies about himself in such comments as "we had three or four trustworthy and faithful [black] servants" at Poplar Farm lets him pass fairly easily for a genial, elderly white southerner, the house guest, rather than the former slave, of Dr. Gaines and his wife. The narrator's tolerant, even-handed attitude toward much of the antebellum past, along with some of his condescending remarks about blacks being "better adapted to follow than to lead," challenge William Wells Brown's blanket denunciations of the slave system in the Narrative, as well as his defense, particularly in the histories he wrote, of blacks as founders and leaders of civilization.

These differences between the Narrative of 1848 and the post-Reconstruction My Southern Home cannot be easily explained. Brown left no clue as to how or whether he intended the later book to be read as a revision of the earlier autobiography. One might wonder if, compared to the uncompromising attack on slavery in the Narrative, Brown in 1880 was not trying to accommodate himself to a new generation of white readers in a post-Reconstruction era increasingly indifferent to the problems of slavery and racial justice over which the Civil War had been fought. Yet if My Southern Home was written in a spirit of conciliation, especially with regard to the book's image of the relationship of blacks and whites in slavery, why does the narrator of My Southern Home denounce the increasingly white supremacist governments of the post-Reconstruction South, attributing to them a "cause of oppression scarcely second in hatefulness to that of chattel slavery" in the Old South? Are African American rights in even greater danger in the so-called New South than they were in the Old? Are the relationships of antebellum slaves and masters pictured less harshly in My Southern Home in order to call attention to just how totally the post-Reconstruction South has perfected a system whereby "complete submission to the whites is the only way for the colored man to live in peace"? Ultimately it seems as difficult to read into My Southern Home a consistent and verifiable sociopolitical message as it is to miss such a message in Brown's 1848 Narrative.

Related title(s)