Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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William Wells Brown
c. 1814-1884

WILLIAM WELLS BROWN was born outside Lexington, Kentucky, around 1814 to a slave named Elizabeth. He was one of seven children of Elizabeth, each of whom had a different father. It is likely that Brown's father was the half‐ brother of John Young, his master, although Brown was never certain of his paternity. In 1827, Brown and his family were moved to a farm north of St. Louis. Brown showed his intelligence even as a child and, instead of being sent to the fields, was hired out for work in the city. Brown's work as a printer's helper for the St. Louis Times and as a physician's assistant to Dr. Young provided a short reprieve from the usual trials of slavery and stimulated Brown's intellect. Later, however, Brown was hired to a slave trader, James Walker, for whom he tended slaves bound for sale in Natchez or New Orleans. This task was made no less painful for Brown when he learned that his family was being sold and separated. In 1833, after Brown failed in an escape attempt with his mother, Elizabeth, she was sold south, never to be seen again, and Brown was sold to Enoch Price.

Price proved to be Brown's last master, for on New Year's Day, 1834, Brown escaped and undertook an arduous journey to freedom. Along the road, after much hardship, Brown was taken in and nursed by a Quaker from whom he took his surname. Now free, Brown worked diligently to start a new life and in 1834 married Elizabeth Schooner, with whom he had three daughters. Brown was quickly drawn to the abolitionists and provided a link in the Underground Railroad, ferrying escaped slaves to Canada. Much affected by the speeches of Frederick Douglass, Brown also began to lecture. After unleashing his powerful and often humorous tongue, he was embraced by William Lloyd Garrison's wing of the abolitionist movement and the American Anti-Slavery Society and published many essays in abolitionist papers. Brown's lecturing schedule was relentless but he was determined to reach an even greater audience; in 1847 he published Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, which became a best-selling antislavery work. The Narrative showed Brown to be highly skilled in the


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Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance


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