William Wells Brown (1815-1884)
Contributing Editor: Arlene Elder
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It would be extremely useful to recount briefly Brown's own history and to emphasize that he was self-taught after his escape from slavery and, therefore, influenced strongly both by his reading and by the popular ideas current during his time, for instance, common concepts of male and female beauty. Reading the class a short historical description of a slave auction and some commentary about the sale of persons of mixed blood, since even one drop of "Negro blood" marked one legally as black, hence appropriately enslaved, would also provide a context for the chapters from Clotelle.
One might provoke a lively discussion by quoting some of the negative comments on writers like Brown present in "The myth of a 'negro literature'" by (Amiri Baraka) in Home Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966) or Addison Gayle, Jr.'s, designation of Brown as "the conscious or unconscious propagator of assimilationism" (The Way of the New World, The Black Novel in America, 11. New York: Anchor, 1976). Any denigration of functional or committed art by critics with New Critical persuasions should provoke thought about the novel's place in the black canon as well as raise current theoretical issues about the political role of art and the artist.
Students are interested in the verification of the sale of "white" slaves: the historical basis for Clotelle as the alleged daughter of Thomas Jefferson; questions of nineteenth-century popular characterization as a source for Brown's handling of his protagonists; the whole genre of the slave narrative; and theoretical issues such as art versus propaganda.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. Brown's own personal experience as an aide to a slave trader.
2. The sexual exploitation of both female slaves and white wives by slave owners. Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl provides an actual situation of sexual exploitation. Since selections from Incidents appear in The Heath Anthology, it might be useful to teach Clotelle in conjunction with this slave narrative.
3. The historical role of Christianity as both an advocate of slavery and, for the slaves, a source of escapism from their situation.
4. The presence of rebellious slaves who refused to accept their dehumanization.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
One needs to place Clotelle within the dual contexts of the black literary traditions of slave narrative and folk orature and the mainstream genre of popular nineteenth-century drama and fiction. This dual influence accounts for what appears to be the incongruous description of Jerome, for instance, who could be seen, in his manly rebellion against an unfair beating as a fictional Frederick Douglass but also is described in a totally unrealistic way both to appeal to racist standards of beauty and to correspond to images of heroes in popular white novels.
Of equal influence on Brown's composition of Clotelle are his two very different audiences, the white middle class and the black "talented-tenth," with very different, sometimes conflicting, expectations, histories, aesthetics, education, and incomes, to whom Brown and other nineteenth-century black novelists had to appeal. Interestingly, there is still no homogeneous audience for black writing, Clotelle included, because American society is still not equal. Therefore, it should not surprise an instructor if the selections arouse extremely different responses from various class members.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Brown's intertwined aesthetic and political complexities are echoed not only in the writing by other nineteenth-century African-American novelists but also in the work of all ethnic American writers, especially those of the present day, for whom issues of constituency and audience are extremely complicated. It is for this reason that Clotelle is extremely useful to demonstrate not only common subjects and themes with the slave narratives but, just as interesting, the influence of society upon artistic choices and the paradoxical position of the ethnic artist vis-à-vis African- and Euro-American literary heritages and his or her mixed constituency.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Chapter II:
(a) How is the idea as well as the historical reality of slaves being treated as dehumanized property expressed in Brown's language and imagery?
(b) How does the auction process reveal the complete dichotomy between the interests of the slaves and those of their traders and owners?
(c) What is the intended effect of Brown's description of Isabella on the auction block?
(d) Why does Brown link the image of the auction block with that of the church spires in this chapter?
2. Chapter X:
(a) What is the symbolic/thematic effect of Brown's description of Isabella's garden?
(b) What does this chapter reveal about the sexual exploitation of both female slaves and the wives of the white masters? What contradiction does it suggest about the possibly comforting concept of a "good master"?
(c) Have we been given enough information to explain Linwood's behavior? How do we account for Isabella's continued kindness toward him?
3. Chapter XI:
(a) Why doesn't Linwood accept Isabella's offer to release him from his promise to her?
(b) Do you think a nineteenth-century reader might react differently from a modern one to the unbelievability of Linwood's mutterings in his sleep? If so, why?
(c) What is the function of religion for Isabella?
4. Chapter XVIII:
(a) How do you explain Brown's incongruous physical description of Jerome?
(b) Who are George Combe and Fowler, and why are they alluded to here?
(c) What do the allusions to certain well-known lovers reveal about Brown's reading?
5. (a) Comparison with details of slave life, especially female concubinage found in Harriet A. Jacobs, Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).
(b) Discussion of Isabella and Clotelle as representatives of the popular "tragic octoroon" stereotype.
(c) Comparison of Clotelle with another nineteenth-century African-American novel about a female slave and her liberation, Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy (Philadelphia, 1892).
(d) Discussion of Jerome as a "counterstereotype" intended to refute negative popular images of blacks. A look at Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston, 1845) as well as Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s, The Clansman (1902) would provide polar contexts for this subject.
Dearborn, Mary. Pochahantas' Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Race," Writing and Difference.
Kinney, James. Amalgamation: Race, Sex, and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel.
Takaki, Ronald T. Violence in the Black Imagination. (Especially Part III on Brown and Clotelle).