William Wells Brown's Narrative & Traveling Subjectivity

Article excerpt

William Wells Brown took rather unconventional first step in The Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847-48), the first publication of his long and successful literary career. The text bears many of the marks of 19th-century slave narratives' depictions of slave society: the narration of brutalities to which slaves were subjected, the breaking up of familial bonds, the hypocrisies and cruelties of "Christian" plantation owners and overseers, and the heroic attempts to escape this subjection and degradation, culminating in the successful removal to freedom in the North. However, Brown notably omits from the Narrative any mention of his education in letters, a common element of the slave narrative genre that prominent 20th-century literary critics have touted as chief among the genre s concerns. (1) Instead of depicting his literary education, and the links between that education and his desire for and success in flight from slavery, Brown reproduces the compulsory and fugitive travels of his youth and young adulthood.

By foregoing the narration of literary acquisition in his first publication, Brown demonstrates the possibilities for freedom and agency outside of, or by routes other than, literacy. In this essay, I examine the disparate forms of travel and mobility that Brown experiences and reconstructs throughout the Narrative. Much of the narrative content that exists between an early scene in which Brown solicits a young man's reading ability and his description, in the text's final chapter, of himself reading antislavery periodicals revolves around the different possibilities for agency lodged in his various travels--travel on the Mississippi River in the service of his owners, fugitive travel on foot, and autonomous travel across the Great Lakes that he achieves by the narrative's conclusion. Brown's narrative addresses what Mark Simpson refers to as a "crisis of movement under slavery, in which an unlicensed, unpredictable slave mobility actually constitutes material and social violence," and in which "movement as a social resource ... pre-supposes a degree of subjective integrity--a measure of motive force, of selfhood, of will" (8). Just as literacy stood as a liberating disobedience in many narratives, travel is, for Brown and for other narrators of the period, the essential transgression of and emancipation from the laws of bondage. (2) In Brown's Narrative, a post-slavery subjectivity emerges from and with the achievement of deliberate mobility "as a social resource"--an un(der)acknowledged material precondition for most literary production. (3)

It is not until Brown revises his personal history in the "Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown," the text that prefaces both his novel Clotel; or, the President's Daughter (1853) and his travelogue The American Fugitive in Europe: Sketches of People and Places Abroad (1855), that he depicts the events through which he learned to read and write. In that revised narrative, Brown recalls his early days in Cleveland, Ohio, and the decision to split up the first shilling he earns by spending "6d. for a spelling book, and the other 6d. for sugar candy or barley sugar" (Clotel 22). He subsequently bribes two young boys to teach him the alphabet: "We all laid down upon the floor, covered with the same blanket; and first one would teach me a letter, and then the other, and I would pass the barley sugar from one side to the other" (23). Brown, it would seem, learns quickly and easily from these boys, recalling, "Before I left that place I could read. Finally, from that I went on until I could write" (23).

For readers already familiar with Brown's life and writing, the omission of this brief anecdote might not seem particularly surprising. Much of Brown's young life, as he represents it in his various nonfictional narratives, was spent aboard Mississippi River steamers in the service of various owners and slave traders, and much of his fugitive adulthood was spent in transit as well, including journeys across Lake Erie and a sojourn in Europe documented in Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852), which was later expanded and republished as The American Fugitive in Europe. …