Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Transforming Borders in William W. Brown's "Narrative"

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Transforming Borders in William W. Brown's "Narrative"

Article excerpt

Despite its being a best seller in nineteenth-century America, the Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave in contemporary times has largely been overshadowed by the work of his better-known compatriot, Frederick Douglass. As William L. Andrews has noted in his "Introduction" to From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, however, "Perhaps more than any other text of its kind, the Narrative of William W. Brown typifies in its subject matter and development the basic plot structure of the antebellum slave narrative" (5). Because Brown was remarkably well-traveled as a slave and, as the abolitionist Edmund Quincy reminds us in a prefatory letter, additionally had an unusual variety of assigned positions working in the house, in the field, and on the river, Brown, uniquely situated, can speak to a wider range of experiences and perspectives within slavery, and, in part for these reasons, his account merits more and closer examination. While a cursory reading allows one to recognize the conventions a slave narrator follows, an in-depth analysis of Brown's Narrative reveals that he not only writes to bolster the abolitionist movement but also works out his own freedom and his sense of self through tropes of distance and space.

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William Wells Brown first captured the attention of Americans with his best-selling Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847). (1) Ranking a close second to Frederick Douglass's narrative in popularity--and in some areas surpassing it Brown's story had wide appeal for a nineteenth-century audience, its author having gained recognition as an abolitionist speaker and writer, and later as a novelist. (2) And yet, as Stephen Lucasi has recently observed, Brown's Narrative has not yet provoked the sustained critical analysis it deserves. (3)

Though Brown's Clotel; or The President's Daughter, considered the first African American novel, was overshadowed by the best-selling novel of the period, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, it has now eclipsed critical attention on his slave narrative. Also possibly giving short shrift to Brown's slave account has been the continued popularity and critical acclaim of his better-known compatriot's work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Such concentrated scrutiny, though, has unduly obscured Brown's own contribution to the genre. As William L. Andrews has noted, "Perhaps more than any other text of its kind, the Narrative of William W. Brown typifies in its subject matter and development the basic plot structure of the antebellum slave narrative." (4) Because Brown was remarkably well-traveled as a slave and, as the abolitionist Edmund Quincy reminds us in a prefatory letter, additionally had an unusual variety of assigned positions working in the house, in the field, and on the river, Brown can also speak to a wider range of experiences and perspectives within slavery, and, in part for these reasons, his account merits more study.

Scholars indisputably accept the authorship and authenticity of Brown's slave narrative." The critical response to his account, however, has not been entirely favorable. One of his contemporaries, though acknowledging the narrative's "very wide influence on public opinion," complained that it was one of those that portrayed the Slave States as a large jail, with all of the whites conspiring against the slaves for profit or pleasure. (6) More recently, James Olney has leveled the charge that, except for Frederick Douglass's narrative, even "the most highly regarded of the other narratives [... simply present] conventions untransformed and unredeemed" (158). For some of the slave narratives, such a reading may seem shortsighted, suggesting that former slaves have no personal reason for composing or they merely repeat what other slave narrators have done without any thought or personal investment in their own writing. …

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