William Wells Brown Maps the South in My Southern Home: Or, the South and Its People
Ernest, John, Southern Quarterly
In the opening paragraph of the first chapter of My Southern Home: Or, The South and Its People (1880), William Wells Brown introduces his readers to a "mansion ... surrounded with piazzas, covered with grapevines, clematis, and passion flowers."1 "The Pride of China," he informs us, "mixed its oriental-looking foliage with the majestic magnolia, and the air was redolent with the fragrance of buds peeping out of every nook, and nodding upon you with a most unexpected welcome."2 Surrounded by this luxurious growth, Brown's story begins - a somewhat embellished return to the plantation at which he had been enslaved in his youth. However, in writing about this mansion towards the end of his career - in the last book he would publish and years after the end of the Civil War and the legal end of slavery, Brown looks back at the mansion and finds both his former home and a qualified but lasting pride of place. "The tasteful hand of art," writes the man who spent most of his adult years in Massachusetts, "which shows itself in the grounds of European and New-England villas, was not seen there, but the lavish beauty and harmonious disorder of nature was permitted to take its own course, and exhibited a want of taste so commonly witnessed in the sunny South."3 From this site, Brown proceeds to tour both his life and the South in a book that itself has challenged the assumptions about taste among his readers, a book in which, one might say, "the lavish beauty and harmonious disorder of nature" is "permitted to take its own course."
Indeed, the remarkable, winding, and luxurious turns that characterize My Southern Home make this Brown's most significant and challenging text. As William L. Andrews has noted, "historians of African American literature have praised My Southern Home as Brown's most finished book, a fitting capstone to the literary monument he built for himself during a writing career that spanned four of the most turbulent decades of American history."4 Other readers have found it to be a problematic pastiche of a narrative, with shifting genres and perspectives, and sometimes shifty opinions and commentary. Brown presents this multigenre book as an autobiographical memoir that begins with an account of his life as a slave and concludes with reflections from his tour of the South during the post-Reconstruction era - including, as Brown notes in his preface, "incidents [that] were jotted down at the time of their occurrence, or as they fell from the lips of the narrators, and in their own unadorned dialect."5 Parts of the text are presented in dramatic form (for, indeed, they were drawn from Brown's plays); parts are presented as transcriptions of African American folk songs that Brown encountered in his travels; other commentaries are presented about the uncertain situation of African Americans recently emancipated from slavery and deep into what many historians take to be one of the most conflicted and threatening periods in African American history. Along the way, Brown manages to reprint material from virtually all of his publications, making My Southern Home less a capstone to a career than a lavish garden, with previously published texts "peeping out of every nook."
Brown's writing career began in 1847 with both a slave narrative and a published lecture, and these two publications - bringing together autobiography and activism - represented well the course of his life after his successful escape from slavery in 1834. Brown was born in 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky, one of seven children of an enslaved woman named Elizabeth. His father was a white man probably related to his owner, Dr. John Young. Young moved his family and property to the Missouri Territory in 1816 and eventually, in 1827, settled on a farm outside of St. Louis - at which time he also, claiming financial difficulties, sold Brown's mother, sister and brothers. Brown himself was hired out to various businessmen who were willing to pay slaveholders for the services of their slaves. …