Clotel

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

CLOTEL


Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, by William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884), is the first novel published by an African American. It was published in London in 1853 because the British were generally considered more sympathetic than the Americans to the plight of African American slaves during pre–Civil War times. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was difficult for black novelists to get a book published in the United States. There was usually insufficient capital for blacks to run their own publishing firms, and white firms were reluctant to endorse black writers, fearing to alienate their white audiences and to lose money from books written by and at least in part aimed toward a minority population. Two of these came out during the 1850s, soon after Clotel. One, Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), would remain largely unread in book form during its own time, and the other, Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative (c. 1850s), was not published as a book until the twenty-first century. Only Clotel would influence the course of fiction during the nineteenth century, as it was eventually republished in America in several different versions, for the first time in 1864 as part of the publisher James Redpath's Books for the Camp Fire series for Union soldiers.

CLOTEL'S PLOT AND THEMATIC INNOVATIONS

Although Clotel, Our Nig, and The Bondwoman's Narrative are all considered important in the early twenty-first century, it was Clotel that provided the model for writers of African American fiction in the nineteenth century. Clotel tells the tale of five African American women living in the antebellum South who lose their freedom through the betrayal of southern white men and the American legal system. The beautiful slave Currer is left to the auction block when Thomas Jefferson, her slave owner, deserts her and his daughters by her to pursue his political ambition. The same fate occurs to Currer's daughter, Clotel; the white man who is her quasi-husband abandons her to slavery in order to pursue his political ambitions. Slavery is also the fate of Currer's granddaughters, Ellen and Jane, when their mother, Althesa (Clotel's sister), and her white husband die of fever.

Clotel's story line emerges in plot pieces that serve to articulate and rearticulate several antislavery themes. Clotel marks the beginning of the "tragic mulatto" theme in African American fiction. The novel also denotes the beginning of the use by African American fiction writers of central American political events to dramatize the underlying hypocrisy of democratic principles in the face of African American slavery. Finally, as a result of the predominance of theme over plot in Clotel, Brown set the pace for formal innovations in the structure of the novel. In contrast to traditional British standards of plot unity and mimesis—that art should present an imitation of real life—Brown unabashedly brought into his text actual newspaper accounts, full-scale borrowings from other literary texts, and texts from actual sermons. Clotel was openly and even daringly grounded in events of the time that blew the lid off ideal notions of American equality. Like Herman Melville's (1819–1891) Moby-Dick (1851), Brown's book did not maintain the illusion that it was a self-contained mirror of reality; the reader is persistently bombarded by different forms of discourse—fiction, factual accounts, narrative intrusions including his own attached prefatory slave narrative—that privilege the message of the text over the concept of a seamless fiction. But unlike Melville, Brown kept his heterogeneous or patchwork discourse more squarely focused on the "now" of his own time.

Although Brown's unorthodox manner of combining fact, fiction, and external literary sources was not only innovative but also influential for later African American authors, it has ultimately led to an open questioning of Brown's own originality, based on the fact that he borrowed heavily from the white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child's (1802–1880) short story "The Quadroons." "The Quadroons" appeared in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society's annual gift book, The Liberty Bell, in 1842. Although Brown's position as father of African American fiction would suggest that any challenge to his originality should be taken seriously, literary originality itself is often a matter of shifting historical perspective. Nevertheless, Brown shows his originality as he penetrates to the heart of traumatized black female identity. Also, quite unlike Child's "The Quadroons," Brown's Clotel serves as a powerfully original jeremiad against the self-destructive shortcomings of an American democracy devoted to retaining African American slavery.

THE TRAGIC MULATTO THEME

Clotel begins a long-term tradition in African American fiction, the theme of the tragic mulatto. During the African American nadir of 1877–1920, when the political backlash against black Americans was at its height, the tragic mulatto theme developed fully into a set of conventions whose central plot element concerned mixed-race, near-white heroes or heroines who discovered, to their horror, that they were not completely white as they had previously thought but instead had at least a drop of black blood. This revelation led either to acceptance or denial of a mixed-race self.

It is important to mention that black writers were not the only writers in the nineteenth century to employ the theme of the tragic mulatto. Mark Twain, for example, in Puddn'head Wilson (1894) structured his novel around the fate of near-white African Americans. Even some racists used the form to depict mulattos as physiologically degenerate. They capitalized on irrational fears of ethnic difference by warning a general white populace that the consequence of intimate relations with "inferior" black people would be a degenerate hybrid species. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) is probably the most notorious of these racist fictions, especially because it became the basis of D. W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. This fear of miscegenation is satirized in an 1864 cartoon in Harper's Weekly, "The Miscegenation Ball," that portrays leading Republicans at Abraham Lincoln's New York headquarters dancing with caricatures of voluptuous young black women. The cartoon makes the point negatively that black women were reduced to the level of "property," whose sexual virtue could be compromised at any time by white men's desire.

Female virtue under siege and without protection was almost a given in the tragic mulatto novel and is the issue at the core of Brown's depiction of the fate of his five mixed-race heroines in Clotel. As the novel begins, Currer, abandoned by her famous white lover, Thomas Jefferson, is about to be sold in a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, along with her two daughters by Jefferson. The point is clearly made that despite Currer's near-white skin, initial guardianship under a white man's protection, and subsequent cultural education superior to that of most enslaved African Americans, there is no legal protection for her in mid-nineteenth-century American society. Currer has tried to gain freedom from slavery for her two near-white daughters, Clotel and Althesa, by "bring[ing] her daughters up as [implicitly white] ladies" (p. 64). Hoping to secure for them the protection of white men, she has encouraged them to attend a "Negro ball," where "a majority of the attendants are often whites" (p. 64).

The fear of, and fascination with, such balls shows the complicated sexual dynamics of the process by which white southern men might form loving relationships with black women yet fail to protect them from the ravages of slavery. Their options, after all, were limited, since the southern slavery system looked severely askance at white men marrying black women. Even if they wanted to, white southern men could not afford to challenge the southern slavery system, which was the source of their own power and social status.

The problem for black women was not only that they were black but also that they were women. Throughout the nineteenth century in America, even white single women who had sexual relations before marriage were considered "fallen," and in the principal mode of women's representation during the 1850s—the domestic or woman's novel, such as The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner (Elizabeth Wetherell)—the fate of fallen women was horrific: such women were shunned or even expected to commit suicide after their indiscretions, even if the compromise was brought about by rape.

At least white women had some modicum of independence and social identity in mid-century America by which they could actively seek their own protection. Without the privilege of marriage, black women had no means to protect themselves from their white plantation masters or anybody else. They were caught in an impossible social bind: having little or no control over their own sexual fates, they were held to the same standards of judgment as those who did. What Currer hopes to accomplish by sending her daughters to the Negro ball is to save their sexual virtue and keep them from enslavement. She has these hopes even in the face of her own rejection by Jefferson.

In fact, as the novel begins, Currer seems to have accomplished her purpose, at least for one of her daughters. On the slave block in Richmond, Clotel is actually purchased by Horatio Green, the wealthy young white man who fell in love with her at the Negro ball. Although he keeps her in a cottage behind his house and does not marry her, they have a loving relationship, which early on produces a child. For Clotel, it is as though they are married. But just as Jefferson had abandoned Currer for the sake of his political ambitions, Green also abandons Clotel when he feels the pull of politics. He leaves her to the mercy of his jealous wife (whom he had married to serve that ambition) and hence to the fate of re-enslavement.

Another apparent option for freedom from sexual taint is presented in the subplot concerning Currer's other daughter, Althesa, who gets sold a second time on the slave block in New Orleans but is rescued by a young white physician formerly from Vermont. These two do marry and have two daughters, Ellen and Jane, and all is well until both parents die of yellow fever. Enter the seemingly infallible low-life class of slave catchers, who ferret out hidden racial identity. It turns out that Althesa, through some predictable snag in the law, was never manumitted (formally emancipated from slavery). Because according to the law she was still a slave when she died, her daughters, Ellen and Jane—who in true tragic mulatto fashion were unaware of their own black blood—are also legally slaves. Rather late in the novel, Brown develops the tragic mulatto theme most fully in the fates of Ellen and Jane: Ellen, revealed as mixed-race and not in control of her future, takes poison to avoid sexual compromise, and Jane, her potential lover killed by her master, dies of a broken heart.

In these last two sorrowful deaths of the tragic mulatto, Brown exposes the sexual economy of the South, where black women—even near-white black women—were made universally available to the sexual advances of white men. And though a white man might play the game of marriage with a black woman who appeared white, he would never challenge the slavery system, and his own power and social status, by making that marriage legal.

CLOTEL AND JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY

When Clotel was published in the United States, the subtitle "A Tale of the Southern States" was substituted for the original "or, The President's Daughter." "The President's Daughter" referred to Brown's use in Clotel of the rumor circulating in a number of publications in the late 1830s—and subsequently proven to be true—that Thomas Jefferson had children from a relationship with a slave mistress. Such an imputation did not sit well with an American public proud of Jefferson's untarnished reputation. This was exactly Brown's point. Jefferson's public position as the champion of American liberty, versus Jefferson's personal position as a Virginian planter who held slaves, could not have presented a better subject matter for Brown's fictional jeremiad. For how could Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States (1801–1809) and the major drafter of the Declaration of Independence (1776), hold slaves and, worse yet, be a party to the sexual compromise of a black woman in his relation with a slave mistress? The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence—"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal"—may not have explicitly referred to women, but it is usually thought to refer to all humankind.

One explanation for the paradox of Jefferson was that he lived in Virginia, and Virginia was considered the jewel in the crown of southern aristocracy. Here, it was thought, were the descendants of British royalty who had immigrated to the United States but retained their divine right to rule over lesser laborers. Jefferson was obviously torn: as an American dissenter to British rule, he felt the strong pull of the "self-evident" truth that all persons were created equal—but he was still a Virginian, and so he felt entitled to hold slaves.

Brown treats Virginia as the epitome of a slave state and then finds an opposing region in New England and sets up the opposition in two contending myths of America's origin. If, on the face of it, the question of origin seems unimportant, Brown suggests that origin myths influence strongly America's sense of itself, which in turn is an influence on the making of American policy.

Brown's two origin myths, in New England and Virginia, follow the almost simultaneous arrival of two ships. One, the Mayflower, landed in New England and aboard it were "great and good men" who practiced "Justice, mercy, humanity [and] respect for the rights of all" (p. 187). This, Brown proclaims, is "the good genius of America" (p. 188). Brown means genius here in the same sense as "genie," the attendant spirit that informs America's inclination toward freedom. The other landing, "far in the South-east" was of a "low rakish ship . . . freighted with the elements of unmixed evil" and bringing "the first cargo of slaves on their way to Jamestown, Virginia" (p. 188). The opposition in American culture that exists between these two events is too profound for Brown not to re-summarize:

Behold the May-flower anchored at Plymouth Rock, the slave-ship in James River. Each a parent, one of the prosperous, labour-honouring, law-sustaining institutions of the North; the other the mother of slavery, idleness, lynch-law, ignorance, unpaid labour, poverty, and dueling, despotism, the ceaseless swing of the whip, and the peculiar institutions of the South. (P. 188)

By juxtaposing Virginia to New England, Brown wants to expose the cruelty behind the genesis of slavery in America's South. Just as significantly, he wants to open up a gap in the imagination of America where slavery does not exist; New England becomes for Brown a metaphorical space for America to imagine itself without bigotry.

Despite this powerful image of a founding New England, slavery-free, for Brown as he expresses his views in Clotel, the ideal of freedom in America was inherently tainted by the coexistence of African American slavery. Jefferson was the perfect representation of that, and at the time of Brown's composition of Clotel, Brown had every reason to think that the policies of the American government were irrevocably invested in slavery.

Brown makes precisely this point in Clotel. Toward the end of the novel, Clotel is recaptured after her escape from slavery in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when she returns to Virginia to find her daughter. Clotel's recapture takes place shortly after the 1831 Nat Turner revolt, a bloody uprising during which approximately sixty whites were slaughtered. Turner and thirty other blacks were hanged as a result, and Brown uses this incident to explain how a hyper sense of vigilance and near-panic among whites makes Clotel's recapture in Virginia or anywhere in the South almost inevitable. Not nearly so clear is the question of why Clotel ends up in a slave prison in Washington, D.C., which is usually considered the symbolic site of American democracy and freedom.

Symbolically, at least, Clotel is in prison in Washington, D.C., because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which compelled any white person, North or South, to turn in a fugitive slave on penalty of fines or even imprisonment. Although the Fugitive Slave Law does not fall within the fictional time frame of Brown's novel, it does fall within the time frame of his composition of Clotel, and it clearly influences the political theme of the novel. Brown uses the Nat Turner revolt as a contemporary stand-in for the later law. When he writes "the Free States are equally bound with the Slave States to suppress any insurrectionary movement that may take place among the slaves," he is writing about the binding obligation between northern and southern states, which became much more inflexible after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

Clotel escapes from the slave prison in Washington only to find herself immobilized on a bridge over the Potomac River, caught between the Virginia side, swarming with men who are keen to arrest her, and the Washington side, blocked by slave catchers. It is Clotel's status as a fugitive slave imprisoned "midway between the capitol at Washington and the President's house" (p. 216) in Washington, D.C., that provides Brown with a fictional analogue for Washington's congressional reenslavement of all African Americans as a result of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. In the end, Clotel leaps off the bridge into freedom, an episode that would have profound echoes in African American fiction. Brown's ironic chapter title for Clotel's demise, "Death Is Freedom," collapses the options for American blacks to live free in America. Also, Brown's point is clear that the treatment of fugitive slaves in the "free" district of Washington, D.C., recapitulates the paradox of Jefferson, whose commitment to American freedom did not interfere with his enslavement of African Americans.

FORM AND ORIGINALITY IN CLOTEL

Robert S. Levine describes the plot structure of Clotel as a pastiche or bricolage, an elegant way of saying that Brown cuts and pastes into his novel many different forms of discourse, such as newspaper articles, real-life sermons, and most pertinent to the question of Brown's originality in Clotel, major sections of Lydia Maria Child's story "The Quadroons." Regarding Brown's use of Child's text, Levine suggests that it "is useful to think of Brown as a kind of plagiarist," but one who justifiably "steals the texts of a culture that steals black bodies" (p. 6).

For Levine, the structural concept of cutting and pasting leads naturally to the question of plagiarism, but structure and content can be separated to examine the degree of originality in each. Clotel's plot resembles an innovative mode of visual representation that Brown admired—the panorama. The panorama, an art form patented in Ireland in 1787, was at its height of popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. When he lived in England, Brown created a panorama covering slave life along the Mississippi River after seeing a panorama of the Mississippi that excluded African Americans. Panoramas, coming from the Greek words pan (all) and horama (view), exhibited geographical vistas on a continuous horizontal screen that was unrolled slowly before an audience. At a time when tourism was a popular commodity, panoramas provided a form of what Roberta J. M. Olson calls "virtual travel."

Brown actually uses this concept of "virtual travel" as a structural device in Clotel, as the novel fans out to distribute Brown's near-white heroines throughout the various regions of the South—Richmond, Virginia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi; and the regionally ambiguous Washington, D.C. Pieces of Child's story are interspersed at various points along the geographical continuum of Brown's larger story of the slavery panorama, which is tied thematically in Clotel to the argument that black women are not safe anywhere they are in the South, or even in Vermont, for that matter.

The lingering question of Brown's originality in his use of "The Quadroons" is not an isolated one in the canon of nineteenth-century American literature. After all, other important authors in nineteenth-century America borrowed liberally from outside sources—Herman Melville (1819–1891), for example, in his use of Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres for his story "Benito Cereno." It can be argued that just as Melville shows his originality through brilliant transformations of a source, Brown also invokes Child's text principally to transform it.

Child's text was romantic and sentimental, written for a gift book intended to decorate parlor tables. A careful comparison of Brown's subtle word changes will yield numerous examples of his resistance to Child's sentimentality, but one will serve here to establish the point. When Clotel's lover abandons her and her child after their fiction of marriage outside the law, Child emphasizes one trait prominently, the passion that Clotel feels. Brown adds that although Clotel "was [Horatio's] slave; [and] her bones, and sinews, had been purchased by his gold, yet she had the heart of a true woman" (p. 112). Though seemingly minor, Brown's inclusion of the phrase "true woman" in his addition is actually quite radical. Throughout the nineteenth century, the phrase "true woman" signified female chastity and purity as well as domesticity. Stunningly, Brown gives Clotel the title "true woman" although she has been sexually compromised.

Brown's radical inclusion of black women among the virtuous, his deft use of the tragic mulatto theme to attack southern morals, and the way that his novel serves as an ardent jeremiad against American democracy makes Clotel; or, The President's Daughter an early testament to the enduring genius of African American fiction writers.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Blacks; Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law; Miscegenation; Slavery

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Work

Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. 1853. Introduction and notes by William Edward Farrison. New York: Citadel Press, 1969.

Secondary Works

Andrews, William A. "The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative." PMLA 105 (1990): 23–34.

Berzon, Judith R. Neither White Nor Black: The MulattoCharacter in American Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Farrison, William Edward. "Introduction" and notes. In Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. New York: Citadel Press, 1969.

Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Levine, Robert S. "Introduction." In Clotel; or, The President'sDaughter. Edited by Robert S. Levine. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

Lewis, Richard O. "Literary Conventions in the Novels of William Wells Brown." CLA Journal 29 (1985): 129–156.

Mulvey, Christopher. "The Fugitive Self and the New World of the North: William Wells Brown's Discovery of America." In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich, pp. 99–111. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Olson, Roberta J. M. "Panorama." ArtLex Art Dictionary.http://www.artlex.com.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. "Bodily Bonds: The Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition." In The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentiment in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Shirley Samuels, pp. 92–114. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Stepto, Robert B. From behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Janet Gabler-Hover

More From Encyclopedia.com


MORE ON THIS TOPIC