What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it.
Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars, but her purchaser was Horatio Green. Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder! (pp. 67-68, Library of America edition)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the best-known of the antislavery novels published during the antebellum period, but there was another, relatively obscure novel that perhaps is even better at getting to the heart of the pernicious evils of chattel slavery. This novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was first published in Great Britain by a former slave fleeing from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Clotel is a remarkable novel for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is the first known novel published by an African American writer. Yet for nearly 125 years after the end of the Civil War it languished in obscurity, more a curiosity than anything actively taught or studied by historians or literature professors. Some of this lack of attention may be due to the end of slavery and the desire to forget, even when it concerns antislavery literature, the particulars of that sordid business, but this does not explain the continued popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There are two competing reasons remaining: either Clotel‘s narrative style was not appealing to later generations of readers or there was a growing prejudice against reading works by black writers. There likely is an element of truth to both of this, but then what explains the recent rise in interest in Brown’s writings? It may be that as a historical artifact, Clotel is a superior example of not just antislavery literature but also that it captures the espirit du temps of the 1850s even better than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even if much of its initial impact was not in the United States but across the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the more striking features of Clotel is its didactic tone. Early 21st century novels very rarely are polemical in nature, so it can be a bit jarring at first to read a novel whose very first lines lays out for the reader the bleak, horrid setting:
With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America, there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted that the abolition of negro slavery would be brought about by the amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of his native state, that “the blood of the first American statesmen coursed through the veins of the slave of the South.” In all the cities and towns of the slave states, the real negro, or clear black, does not amount to more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America. (p. 61)Clotel and her family do not appear until a few pages into the narrative; Brown is more concerned with establishing for his mostly-white audience (at least for this original edition; he extensively edited it later, changing some details, for a more mixed-race American audience in later editions) in Great Britain just how horrible American chattel slavery truly was. In a sense, Clotel and her family are not as much original characters as they are emblems for what millions of enslaved Americans suffered in the mid-19th century. It is best to keep this in mind, as some of the narrative elements otherwise might seem too melodramatic.
Clotel’s ancestry is based on the then-rumors about Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings but more so than that, it is meant to establish just how deep racial prejudices ran, so that while some fathers of biracial children might dandle a child on his knee, he would be just as likely to whip them or sell them down the river to New Orleans. Although the fictional Currer, Clotel’s mother, was not the property of Jefferson but instead lent out to him, she and her daughters were sold off with nary a mention of Jefferson himself afterward. It is a brutal, effective way of establishing the dehumanizing experiences that Clotel and her relatives experience throughout the novel.
Clotel is bought for $1500 (roughly $30,000 in today’s money, or the cost of a well-equipped new car or truck, to put it in the perspective of those who equated African-descended people with labor machines) by Horatio Green, who was earlier struck by her beauty and who desired her as a concubine. Although Brown does not explicitly label this as rape, showing some reciprocal feelings on the part of Clotel, there is enough to be read between the lines to indicate that there is some level of coercion involved; after all, Clotel is Green’s property. Yet regardless of whatever attachments, real or feigned, that might have developed between them, according to Virginia law, no slave could marry a white person. This plays a role years later, when Green enters into a marriage agreement and his new wife forces him to sell Clotel and their daughter, Mary.
Meanwhile, the lives of Currer and Clotel’s sister, Althesa, are little better. Currer is sold to a preacher and dies of yellow fever before his daughter is able to emancipate her. Althesa and her new owner also enter into a common-law marriage, as Althesa is able to pass for white, but she and her master, Morton, also die, leaving their daughters to be sold into slavery (one, Ellen, chooses to commit suicide, and the other, Jane, dies of heartbreak). Their stories, which are permutations of Clotel and her daughter’s experiences, are told with a detached yet highly charged emotion similar to those passionate tales which were the forerunners of late-19th century sensational novel. Although at times the individual reactions border on the melodramatic, for contemporary audiences it had the effect of a series of blows to the gut.
Clotel has at this point been sold to a planter in Vicksburg, Mississippi. There she meets and falls in love with another slave, William, and they plan their escape, with Clotel passing as William’s master. Their escape, based heavily upon the remarkable 1849 escape of Ellen and William Craft, succeeds, and William goes forward into Canada, while Clotel returns in disguise to Richmond in order to attempt the rescue of her daughter. However, things go awry and forced to choose between death by drowning or a return to slavery, Clotel chooses the former. Although the novel could have ended effectively at this point, Brown extends it over another ten years, showing how Mary manages to gain both her freedom and a lover she thought she was forced to leave behind. It is a touching, tenuously hopeful conclusion to a novel that repeatedly batters its readers with its blunt, horrific descriptions of the degradations that Clotel and her family had to experience.
Taking into consideration the differences between mid-19th and early-21st century literary conventions, Clotel is a very evocative novel, one that gains its narrative power not so much from the force of its individual characters but from the polemical nature of the third-person narrator. There are very few wasted passages; Brown knows exactly what effect he seeks to effect and for the most part, he manages to execute this very well. The characters themselves, while perhaps not as immediately memorable as a Simon Legree or an Uncle Tom, are also effective in presenting humanity in the midst of degradation; love surviving callous brutality; hope enduring while surrounded by hatred and despair. While some of the scenes might seem a bit too flashy or sensationalist for modern readers, on the whole they are rendered vividly, leaving a lasting impression in readers’ minds. Today, Clotel should be remembered not just as the first known African American novel, but also as one of the classics of mid-19th century American literature. Over 160 years after its initial publication, it still possesses a power to move the hearts and souls of its readers.