The Missouri Breaks Remembering a St. Louis slave-writer and trickster.

William Wells Brown, an African American Life

Ezra Greenspan (W.W. Norton, 2014) 614 pages including index, notes, photos and illustrations

Among the many fugitive slaves who joined the abolitionist movements in United States and England, only Frederick Douglass exceeded William Wells Brown in literary productivity and renown. Both men escaped from slavery in early adulthood; both men renamed themselves in honor of the white men who aided them in their first days in a free state; both men wrote influential slave narratives: Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and Brown’s, Narrative of William W. Brown (1847); both men lectured widely for the American and British Anti-Slavery Societies and contributed to abolitionist newspapers including William Lloyd Garrison’s, The Liberator; both men had their freedom purchased by the Richardson family of Newcastle, England. During their lifetimes (Douglass outlived Brown by 15 years) Douglass and Brown were part of the small but fiercely tenacious army, on both sides of the Atlantic, fighting to rid the world of human slavery.

Few educated Americans today have heard of William Wells Brown but most American high school graduates know of Frederick Douglass. This disparity is also evident in the scholarship on the two men. Although there are numerous biographies and biographical essays on Frederick Douglass, the first biography of William Wells Brown appeared almost 80 years after his death, when William Edward Farrison published William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer in 1969. As Ezra Greenspan’s comprehensive new biography, William Wells Brown: An African American Life, illuminates, Brown’s life and work constituted a significant contribution to the abolition of slavery and laid the groundwork for the 20th-century struggle for African-American civil rights. Ezra Greenspan’s painstakingly researched biography amplifies the significance and singularity of Brown’s remarkable life and work.

Among the important features of Greenspan’s biography is that it provides early 21st-century readers with a thick description of the social, political, and cultural climate of the disparate but intimately connected contexts of Brown’s life. Until his escape in 1834, Brown had lived in Kentucky and Missouri. As a young teen his master, John Young, a physician and first cousin to Brown’s father, “rented” him out as manual labor to a hotel, a tavern, a newspaper and several steamships. Before his escape, Brown had made several journeys up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as an assistant to a slave trader. In those formative years, Brown was part of the restless, roiling boom-town culture of river cities like St. Louis and Galena. Following his successful escape, Brown moved to Cleveland, where he found work on Lake Erie steamships. In 1825, the Erie Canal linked the then American West to the East, pushing commercial expansion in both directions. Brown’s work on the steamboats that traveled these waterways placed him in the eye of the storm of frenetic American economic development of the early 19th century. Much of it depended on slave labor, which was becoming anathema both at home and abroad. In 1833, the year before Brown’s escape, the British outlawed slavery in their colonies. More than a timeline of Brown’s life, Greenspan’s contextualization calls attention to the cataclysmic events taking place in the world around him.

In 1836, after two years in Cleveland, Brown moved his young family to Buffalo, where he continued to work on Lake Erie and developed closer ties to the antislavery movement. No specific moment marks Brown’s debut as an activist for abolition, but as Greenspan observed, “He was … a less extravagantly self-dramatizing figure than Douglass, but it also seems that his path tracked along a long, steady gradient. Once mobilized, however, he never deviated from a life of public service.” By 1844 Brown was an extremely active and accomplished lecturer for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Dozens of fugitives took to the lecture circuit in the 1840s and 1850s but few succeeded like William Wells Brown. As a salaried lecturer, Brown spent months on the road often lecturing seven days a week. In time he moved to Boston and there, surrounded by a supportive circle of black and white abolitionists, in particular, patrician Edmund Quincy, Brown submitted his slave narrative for publication. The Narrative of William Wells Brown was only the second slave narrative to be published by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Traveling to spread the word through lectures and performances, coupled with writing on slavery and the black odyssey in the “new” world, would become his life’s work.

Whereas Douglass emerges as the heroic slave who defeats a sadistic slave-driver and eventually enslavement itself, Brown’s slave narrator is a trickster, a picaro, forced to make his way in a corrupt world.

The model for Brown’s Narrative was Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, but the differences between the two works are immediately apparent. Whereas Douglass emerges as the heroic slave who defeats a sadistic slave-driver and eventually enslavement itself, Brown’s slave narrator is a trickster, a picaro, forced to make his way in a corrupt world. The Narrative’s anecdotal quality was prompted by Brown’s desire to include as many aspects of the slave experience as possible. As Greenspan argues, Brown’s model for appropriation was Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), a collection of hundreds of eyewitness accounts of slavery in the United States. As a fugitive slave, Brown was in a unique position to lend credibility to a work compiled by a white abolitionist.

Brown’s Narrative appeared in 1847 just as Douglass returned, a free man, from a two-year exile in England. Soon Brown would chart his own course independent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Brown entered the ranks of lecturers for MASS in 1847, just as Douglass departed. Brown would become one of the most popular lecturers on the anti-slavery circuit; he was a gifted mimic with an excellent voice who concluded his lectures with anti-slavery songs. In 1848, he published The Anti-Slavery Harp, a compilation of song lyrics sung to familiar melodies for use at anti-slavery gatherings. In addition, he also self-published a second, expanded edition of his Narrative that included an article on the slave trade, the lyrics to “The Blind Boy,” and other related items. The additional material is suggestive of Brown’s own sense of his role as, activist, witness, and instructor of the ignorant and ill-informed.

In early 1848, Brown sent a copy of his Narrative to Enoch Price, the man who remained his legal owner. It was a provocative act and Price responded. In a letter addressed to Edmund Quincy, Price offered to accept $325 for Brown’s manumission. Brown immediately employed the letter as a prop in his anti-slavery lectures, most memorably before a large audience at Boston’s Faneuil Hall in February of 1848. Unwilling to negotiate terms with Price, Brown prepared to leave the United States for England. The years between 1849-1854 were arguably his most productive. Greenspan’s carefully detailed description of that period illuminates Brown’s extraordinary contribution to the abolitionist cause and to African-American cultural history.

What best characterized Brown’s work during this exile was his willingness to employ innovative media to tell the slave’s story. Among the most popular spectacles of the mid-19th century was the panorama. Brown had seen John Banvard’s Panorama of the Mississippi Valley in 1847 during its exhibition in Boston. He was struck by the form’s potential to draw crowds; Banvard’s Panorama had attracted 250,000 visitors in its six-month run. As important, Brown was infuriated by the characterization of the slave South as an agrarian paradise. Before he set sail for England in 1849, Brown had several artists illustrate scenes of Southern slavery on 24 panels that would become the components of his own panorama of American slavery. Similarly, Brown created a “magic lantern” show to accompany his lectures. As Brown described his life as a slave, audiences would see corresponding images projected by candlelight upon a screen. Like the letter from Enoch Price, Brown employed the panorama and the magic lantern to render the reality of slavery more palpable, immediate and menacing. Brown brought the panorama and the magic lantern lectures to several parts of England.

Brown was infuriated by the characterization of the slave South as an agrarian paradise. Before he set sail for England in 1849, Brown had several artists illustrate scenes of Southern slavery on 24 panels that would become the components of his own panorama of American slavery.

However long a journey Brown imagined when he left the United States in 1849, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 compelled him to remain in England until 1854. It also sent a wave of well-known fugitives slaves, such as Henry “Box” Brown and William and Ellen Craft to England for safety. Brown had befriended the Crafts in 1848 when he learned of their spectacular escape. (The fair-skinned Ellen disguised as the master escaped with her husband William, who played the role of the slave, traveling from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1848.) In the winter of 1849, Brown introduced the Crafts to the abolitionist lecture circuit in New England. He welcomed them to London in 1850 and the three fugitives resumed lecturing throughout England. Brown’s work as a lecturer for abolition during his European exile was accompanied by the publication of two groundbreaking books. In 1853, William Wells Brown became the first African American to write a novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter. He was also the first black American to write a travel narrative, Three Years in Europe, published in 1852.

Certainly inspired by the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Brown’s Clotel resembles his autobiographical work in its appropriation of tales and vignettes from a broad spectrum of anti-slavery literature. Arguably, the novel was the form best suited to Brown’s purpose; he had a story that was as difficult to tell as it was to believe. Every anecdote, every possible variation on the theme of human beings in chattel slavery would find its way into Brown’s novel. Clotel drew on the widely-held belief that Thomas Jefferson had several children with his slave Sally Hemmings; Brown also used excerpts from his own narrative and the work of others in the composition of Clotel. The most anthologized chapter is “The Escape of Clotel,” wherein the heroine disguises herself as a Southern gentleman and escapes with fellow fugitive, William, who plays the role of his slave. Clotel’s leap into the Potomac to avoid recapture, against the background of the nation’s Capital, makes the larger point with a searing image. For generations readers have pointed to the novel’s failings. But that Brown was the first African American to use the novel, a popular form, to represent American slavery attests to his resourcefulness and ambition. Three Years in Europe began as a series of letters on his experience in Europe for Frederick Douglass’s journal, North Star. Brown’s experiences abroad argue that the absence of slavery made it possible for black and white people to live harmoniously under the same flag.

In 1854, Ellen Richardson successfully negotiated Brown’s manumission and in August of that year, he returned to Boston and to work for abolition. Brown wrote and began to perform two plays as part of his public appearances for MASS. “Experience” was never published, but The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom (1858) is arguably his best literary work. In part the play succeeds because of the author’s growing literary depth of experience: Brown had developed the characters and themes in his other works; for instance, the crafty slave picaro Cato is a version of himself in the Narrative. As important, the dramatic format imposed a discipline that illuminated the best features of his writing. Although it was not the first play written, published, and performed by an African American (that honor goes to francophone free man of color Victor Séjour for The Jew of Seville in 1844), The Escape is one of the earliest in the African-American canon.

In the last two decades of his life Brown continued to lecture and publish. In addition to a third and fourth edition of Clotel, he published three works of African-American history: The Black Man (1862), The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867), The Rising Son: or, the Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (1873), and a memoir of a return to the South during Reconstruction, My Southern Home (1880). Ezra Greenspan’s detailed, elegantly written, William Wells Brown: An African American Life, informs and invites us to marvel at the remarkable life and legacy of this African-American original.