Friday, February 03, 2012

Clotel (1853)

Author: William Wells Brown
Title: Clotel, or the President's Daughter
Publisher: Bedford Critical Edition
LCC:S1139.B9 C53 2000

Clotel or, the President's Daughter is not a good novel. However, artistry does not seem to have been a main concern of its author, William Wells Brown.

Brown was  a contemporary of Frederick Douglass and just as fervent an abolitionist. Born into slavery in 1814, Brown was the son of an African American mother and a wealthy Kentucky planter. On New Year's Day 1834, Brown managed to escape to the North by taking a river boat to the free state of Ohio. Brown would soon find himself married, living in New York, and advocating the abolitionist cause. As part of his abolitionist efforts, Wells published his own autobiography which elaborated on his experiences as a slave and documented his path to freedom. Although not as popular as Douglass's biography,  Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself brought the author considerable notoriety. It also made him a prime target for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Unwilling to be forced back into slavery, Brown fled the United States and began speaking on behalf of American abolitionists in England. It was in England that Brown began working on Clotel, the first novel to be published by an African-American author.

Clotel is a decidedly odd text in its construction. The premise of the novel is simple enough. Clotel  is the fictitious daughter of President Thomas Jefferson and a thinly fictionalized version of his slave, Sally Hemings. The novel's epigraph comes from The Declaration of Independence and states that "all men are created equal" and are therefore entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In beginning in this way, Brown hopes to create tension that the man who was the father of American liberty was also the father of slaves.

Clearly, the aims of Clotel are political ones. Much like Harriet Beacher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the purpose of the novel is to persuade readers that abolitionism is a just cause. In a short essay entitled "Everybody's Protest Novel," James Baldwin argued that Stowe and other protest novelists betrayed the causes they hoped to support through the false emotion of sentimentality. For Baldwin, sentimentality denied the full range of humanity to the characters of protest fiction. Characters like Uncle Tom lacked the complexity native to humanity and were instead used as demographic representatives, whom white readers could determine their own moral rightness vis-a-vis their affective response to the character. I'm not wholly unsympathetic to Baldwin's argument, and it remains a compelling one for liberals to consider, but this is not the problem that mars Clotel as a work of fiction.

Part of the problem is the deliberate slackness to the novel's plotting. No sooner are we introduced to Clotel and learn of her pedigree than Brown decides to divide our attention. Clotel, her mother, and her sister are all sold in the novel's early pages. Rather than staying with Clotel, however, Brown chooses to follow all three characters after they are separated. The break up of their family does not serve to heighten the intensity of the novel, but rather serves to dilute it. Different chapters focus on different members of Clotel's family and many characters seem frozen in their own subplots.

However, the novel's major and unforgivable flaw is that despite the clarity of the novel's premise, Brown seems to have an almost inexplicable aversion to pointing the reader's attention to Clotel. She is a remarkably minor figure in a novel that bears her name. A protest novel like Uncle Tom's Cabin works to argue against slavery by illustrating the injustice of that "peculiar institution" through the travails of Uncle Tom, Topsy, and the other characters. Robert Levine, the editor of the Bradford Critical Edition, refers to Brown as a "cultural editor" in his introduction. As a "cultural editor," Brown synthesized a number of different abolitionist stories that were in circulation and integrated them into the narrative of the text. We can think of Brown as a D.J. or a rap producer, sampling and repurposing the abolitionist hits of others to produce a new work. Of course, all novelists do this to some degree but Brown relies on it so greatly as a narrative strategy that it is the signature style of the work. The problem arises is that Brown's remixing frequently distracts readers from Clotel and her family. Rather than take real events and distribute those reported misfortunes to one of the novel's fictitious characters, Brown tends to introduce these incidents by introducing new characters. The result is that Clotel and her family frequently occupy the novel's background when they should be in the foreground.

Clotel's importance has less to do with the craft of fiction as it does with the study of its history. Scholars and students will find much of value in the Bedford Cultural Edition of the novel. Levine's introduction is an indispensable guide to Brown's biography and the publication history of the novel. While I sometimes found the footnotes to be excessive, other readers may feel otherwise. After all, each reader will a different level of cultural and historic literacy to the text and for teaching purposes its best to air on the side of caution. However, the real strength of the edition is the pedagogic aides to be found in the text. Levine has supplied students and instructors with a vast array of contextualizing, historical documents that are bound to be of service. I could see these aides being of particular use for student research projects as it makes a number of important historic documents easily available to students. In other words, I don't recommend reading Clotel, but if you must I would suggest you pick up the Bedford Critical Edition.

Next week: Richard Wright's Lawd Today.

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