The "Unguarded Expressions of the Feelings of the Negroes": Gender, Slave Resistance, and William Wells Brown's Revisions of 'Clotel.'

By Fabi, M. Giulia | African American Review, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

The "Unguarded Expressions of the Feelings of the Negroes": Gender, Slave Resistance, and William Wells Brown's Revisions of 'Clotel.'


Fabi, M. Giulia, African American Review


In his three book-form editions of Clotel (1853, 1864, and 1867), William Wells Brown divided and differently partitioned his attention between two competing plots. The first revolves around individual all-but-white female figures whose very existence constitutes a challenge to rigid racial definitions and whose ability to pass for white represents a genteel form of covert resistance expedient in eluding racial oppression. With some variations in the three editions, this plot follows the adventures of a slave mother who is separated from her daughter. Both pass for white at different times and for different purposes: While the mother makes a tragic attempt to rescue her child from slavery, years later the enslaved daughter succeeds in escaping to Europe.

The second plot centers instead on the slave community and incorporates a wide variety of historical information, anecdotes, folklore, newspaper accounts, etc., in order to document the multiformed life of the slaves and the many diverse, more markedly confrontational forms of communal resistance to slavery. The protagonists of this second plot are most often male and visibly black. Slave women who cannot pass are also subsumed within this community, though without adequate representation: The dichotomy between genteel and confrontational resistance in fact leads Brown to eschew the depiction of active female trickery, a concept extraneous to dominant contemporary ideologies of true womanhood, as well.(1) The differences between the two plots

are also stylistic: The story of the passers is cast within the conventions of melodramatic romantic fiction, whereas the male communal plot is characterized by "sensationalistic realism" (Andrews, "The 1850s" 47).(2)

The respective relevance of these two narrative modes, as well as of the plots they are connected with, changes in the three editions of Clotel, as Brown makes increasing efforts to disguise his radical interpretation of slave culture by unifying the action of the novel, diminishing its sketchiness, and giving centrality to a sentimental plot with which American audiences were both familiar and comfortable.(3) Analogously, the significance of Clotel in the making of African American fiction changes over time: In its first version, it accomplishes the transition from autobiographical to fictional authorship; by its last, it emerges as an antecedent of the literary strategies and concerns of the post-reconstruction period.

The relationship between autobiographical and fictional authorship that critic William Andrews has discussed with regard to the "novelization" of slave narratives (To Tell 272) can also be investigated from the vantage point of Brown's novel.(4) The three book-form editions of Clotel reveal not only the oft-noted close connection between early African American literature and historical events,(5) but also the author's effort to adjust his original text to its own accomplished novelization, in the attempt to tame its proliferation of characters and events, as well as to accommodate the open-ended real-life "melodrama endemic to American racism" within the generic boundaries of the romance (Jackson 337).

In spite of the higher visibility of the passing plot, the author's most radical and most substantial denunciation of slavery rests on the accretion of (mostly male) folk characters and stories over which he initially does not impose any fictional order or sense of progression, thereby obliging the reader to experience the incoherence and displacement that Brown sees as central to slave life. Though never completely edited out of his extensive revisions of the novel, this narrative strategy, which has gained Clotel a reputation for "fragmentation" (Heermance 177) and "sketchiness" (Farrison 230), is increasingly tamed and subordinated to the more straightforward movement of the sentimental plot. In the second and third editions, the stronger emphasis on the adventures of the title heroine increases the visibility of the theme of passing, thus deflecting attention from the wealth of communal facts regarding slave life that Brown recounts.

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