Brown, William Wells

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Brown, William Wells

c. 1814
November 6, 1884

Born in Kentucky around 1814, novelist and historian William Wells Brown was the son of a slave woman and a white relative of her owner. The diverse jobs that Brown filled as a youth gave him the rich firsthand knowledge of the slave-era South that informs his autobiographical and fictional narratives. Moreover, it was while working for a printer named Elijah Lovejoy (who was later murdered by anti-abolitionists) that he took his first halting steps toward literacy.

Brown escaped from slavery in January 1834. During his flight he received aid from an Ohio Quaker named Wells Brown, whose name he subsequently adopted in the course of defining his new identity as a free man. Brown settled in Cleveland, where he married Elizabeth Schooner, a free black who bore him three children, two of whomClarissa and Josephinesurvived to adulthood. Brown's antislavery activities began during these years as he helped numerous fugitive slaves escape to Canada. After moving to Buffalo, he continued his participation in the Underground Railroad and also spoke publicly on behalf of abolition, women's rights, peace, and temperance. By 1847 Brown had settled in Boston, where he published Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave to considerable success.

In 1849 Brown traveled to Europe to attend the Paris Peace Congress and to solicit support for American abolition. While abroad, he delivered over a thousand speeches and wrote some of his most important work, including the first African-American travelogue, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852; issued in the United States in 1855 as The American Fugitive in Europe ). In 1853 he published in London what has long been considered the first African-American novel, Clotel; or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (revised and reprinted three times in United States under different titles). After leaving Europe in 1854, when supporters purchased his freedom from Enoch Price, his last master, Brown turned to drama, producing the satirical Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone in 1856 and, in 1858, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, the first play published by an African American.

Brown's wife had died during his European sojourn, and in 1860 he married Annie Elizabeth Gray. Meanwhile he continued his political and literary activities, supporting black recruitment efforts during the Civil War and writing The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), ten editions of which appeared within three years. His other historical works include The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867), a landmark study of blacks in the Civil War, and The Rising Son; or The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race (1874). His final bookMy Southern Home; or, The South and Its People appeared in 1880. Brown died in 1884 after working for much of his later life as a physician in the Boston area.

If Brown's fiction is sometimes overly sentimental and structurally flawed and his histories can be insufficiently documented and repetitive, Brown's writing also manifests a sharp eye for telling detail, a skilled use of irony, and a clear, accessible prose style. Above all, he was an extraordinary pioneer; as such, he holds a crucial place in the African-American literary tradition.

See also Slave Narratives; Slavery; Underground Railroad


Brown, William Wells. From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown, edited by William L. Andrews. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

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

richard yarborough (1996)
Updated bibliography

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