William Wells Brown, Three Years in Europe, and Fugitive Tourism

By Baraw, Charles | African American Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

William Wells Brown, Three Years in Europe, and Fugitive Tourism


Baraw, Charles, African American Review


At the start of his career as an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, William Wells Brown participated in two events that highlight the issues at stake in his later travels abroad. First, sometime in the spring of 1847, he visited a Boston exhibition of "The Panorama of the Mississippi River," which "amazed" him with its "mild" portrayal of slavery and gave him the idea of constructing a panorama of his own that would counter the proslavery bias of this apparently innocuous, but obviously partial view of a celebrated American landscape. (1) Later, in November of that year, he famously declared to the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society that "slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented" (Lecture 4). The problem, as Brown presents it, is not just a lack of public knowledge about slavery, but also the inevitable failure of any effort to do more than "represent [slavery] as we think it is." No representation, not even his own, can convey "the real condition of the slave" (4).

If Brown's visit to a tourist attraction in Boston reminded him of how thoroughly proslavery images pervaded antebellum culture--and how often they went unremarked--then his urge to counter the Mississippi panorama with his own account of slavery may have sharpened his sense of the problems inherent in any attempt to represent either individual or collective experience of a trauma on the scale of slavery in the United States. Brown also understands, as he makes clear in Salem, that his efforts are constrained by what he calls the "fastidiousness" of his predominantly white audience and by the generic expectations they bring to the slave narrative. When Brown traveled to Europe in 1849, he continued to address these problems as both a professional lecturer and as a "fugitive tourist," that is, as a celebrated fugitive slave publicly performing the conventional practices of nineteenthcentury aesthetic tourism. (2)

This essay argues that Brown's experience as a "fugitive tourist" led him to the unlikely discovery that the growing popularity of tourism presented opportunities to extend his audience and provided a new set of genetic and aesthetic conventions that could serve his work as a writer and antislavery activist. In contrast to his predecessor Frederick Douglass, who emphasizes the radically different meanings Great Britain held for him as a "rude, uncultivated fugitive slave" and for "American young gentlemen" in search of "knowledge, ... pleasure," and refinement of "their rough democratic manners" (Autobiographies 677), William Wells Brown publicly adopts the role of a cultivated fugitive, integrating tourism and its representational strategies into his own antislavery discourse. (3) With the publication of Three Years in Europe, Brown produces a new kind of "fugitive tourism" that adopts key conventions of Anglo-American travel historical sightseeing, museum-going, literary pilgrimages, and the sentimental encounter with the Other--and transforms them into powerful counter-narratives that expose the instability of monumental histories of nation, empire, and race. "Fugitive tourism" enabled Brown to represent slavery--and to represent himself as a fugitive slave--in ways that facilitated his career-long critique of the parochialism, historical myopia, and the barely concealed violence that sustained slavery in the United States. By embracing the conventions of Anglo-American tourism as no African American writer had before, Brown politicizes antebellum travel, further exposes the fallacies and hypocrisies of the slaveowning republic, and establishes for himself what his first biographer calls "a position among literary men never before enjoyed by any colored American" (J. Brown 82). (4)

In both Three in Years Europe; or, Places I have Seen and People I have Met, and the later U. S. edition of Brown s travels, The American Fugitive in Europe, Brown chronicles visits to an exhausting array of conventional attractions, He visits picturesque ruins and palaces, climbs church towers and monuments, and revels in his proximity to European celebrities living and dead. …

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