My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is a perfect book for any month, especially June when America and the world celebrate Freedom Day (or Juneteenth Independence Day) as a way to remember June 19, 1865, a day when Texas abolished slavery and slaves in the Confederate South were emancipated.
Despite being a book of fiction, Colson obviously did extensive research and has closely based his book on ones far more superior and far more accurate in their ability to detail a multitude of horrible events (a fraction of what Colson touches on his book) describing slaves working and living on a plantation and also human beings escaping slavery. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Colson said: “I’m still consuming slave narratives, histories, and novels that help me feel the heat of my ancestors every day.”
We are all too familiar with slave literature written by anti-slavery activists and former slaves sharing their histories with the public. After reading Colson’s The Underground Railroad (which no doubt rightfully pays homage to its established predecessors), several books instantly come to mind:
The Classic Slave Narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and includes: The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1749 text); The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; and, lastly, Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs as Linda Brent.
Additional slave literature would include William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (published in 1853) and his later version, Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine: A Tale of the Southern States (published in 1867); William Wells Brown’s memoir The Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (serialized in 1851 and published as a novel in 1852); and one would be remiss if we did not include Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) to finish the list.
[You may read more about these ground breaking and unforgettable books at the end of the review on The Underground Railroad.]
Colson, however, brings with him a sense of immediacy and modern vernacular to the story, despite sharing multiple and familiar scenes with his more historical and dated predecessors.
Take for example a scene in the opening chapter by Colson which will remind any reader of the actual horrors faced by Olaudah Equiano on his voyage to the “promise land” to become a slave. Colson’s version tells of Cora’s family history and how her grandmother came to America:
“The noxious air of the hold, the gloom of confinement, and the screams of those shackled to her contrived to drive Ajarry to madness. Because of her tender age, her captors did not immediately force their urges upon her, but eventually some of the more seasoned mates dragged her from the hold six weeks into the passage. She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning. The sailors stymied her both times, versed in the schemes and inclinations of chattel. Ajarry didn’t even make it to the gunwale when she tried to jump overboard. Her simpering posture and piteous aspect, recognizable from thousands of slaves before her, betrayed her intentions. Chained head to toe, head to toe, in exponential misery” (p. 4).
Cora, the protagonist and heroine of her own story, at first struggles with the very notion of freedom, and to her the concept—a basic human right—seems just as alien and foreign to her as the moon. Not quite the equivalent by any standard, Cora’s lamentations could, however, even echo many plights today of African-Americans in America, as well as millions of other human beings around the world, who struggle against an invisible barrier of poverty and a social class system which makes rising in the social hierarchy almost an impossibility. Here, Cora laments:
“Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible” (p. 8).
Colson digs deeper into the narrative by presenting the reader with a varied assortment of characters who seem more real than the next by offering sections of his book to individual points-of-view which chronicle Cora’s escape from the plantation and on to a very real railroad located underground.
What could remind any reader of a scene out of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Colson gives a slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway time to tell his own story and what drives him after Cora to the end of The Underground Railroad and Colson does so in an unbiased manner which reports (as hard as that might have been for him) on all sides and angles of the nightmare of slavery as Colson describes two funerals: one for a white slave owner and the other for a runaway slave known as Big Anthony, who was caught and returned to the plantation for his punishment:
“Ridgeway’s audience lasted half an hour. He took notes in a small diary and to hear the house speak of it was a man of intense concentration and flowery manner of speech…
“The slave catcher shared rumors of a new branch of the underground railroad said to be operating in the southern part of the state, as impossible as it sounded. Old Randall scoffed. The sympathizers would be rooted out and tarred and feathered, Ridgeway assured his host. Or whatever satisfied local custom. Ridgeway apologized once again and took his leave and soon his gang crashed to the county road toward their next mission. There was no end to their work, the river of slaves that needed to be driven from their hidey-holes and brought to the white man’s proper accounting…
“The slaves got time off to attend Old Randall’s funeral. They stood in a quiet huddle while all the fine white men and women paid their respects to the beloved father. The house niggers acted as pallbearers, which everyone thought scandalous at first but on further consideration took as an indicator of genuine affection, one they had indeed enjoyed with their own slaves, with the mammy whose titties they suckled in more innocent times and the attendant who slipped a hand under soapy water at bath time. At the end of the service it began to rain. It put an end to the memorial but everyone was relieved because the drought had gone on too long. The cotton was thirsty…
“They gathered on the front lawn. The witnesses were spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in. The stocks smoked, charred, and burned, the figures in the wood twisting in the flames as if alive” (pgs. 41-47).
[Note the use of the word “sympathizer” which shows up several times throughout Colson’s The Underground Railroad because on a more hidden level among editors, beta readers and publishers this specific use of the word “sympathizer” alludes to a specific and overt example of social, political and cultural engineering through contemporary literature within the United States today… or to an incredible coincidence—The Sympathizer (2015) by a Vietnamese refugee (who had published only a handful of mediocre pieces and not a single work of fiction in the long form) won in a huge and somewhat disappointing upset the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; The Underground Railroad, published in 2016, ended up, however, winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction the following year in 2017, which clearly illustrated the mistake by the judges the previous year because The Underground Railroad actually won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction; The Sympathizer wasn’t even a finalist; the Vietnamese refugee, did however, have his non-fiction book make the short list for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction in 2016, the book was called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (no surprise he wrote about Vietnam there). Colson’s book The Underground Railroad also won the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction in 2016 while The Sympathizer was nowhere to be found in the book awards governed by readers and the people… when do you think the Vietnamese pseudo-writer who won the Pulitzer (surname is pronounced as “when”) will wake up and realize that American society in general (and not the readers who buy books) did not reward him for his art but rewarded him in an attempt to make amends for the Vietnam War and for his tragic past as a refugee?]
Unafraid and brave enough to venture into the hearts and minds of those characters who will be hated by history for their crimes against humanity, Colson decides to embody the very evil in order to dig deeper into the psyche of the slave owners and the slave catchers (let’s not stereotype all white men and women because that would be racist, per racism’s literal definition). By doing so, Colson captures the psyche of the American settlers who crossed an ocean to leave Europe:
“If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
“Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative” (p. 80).
The “American imperative” may be a bit much and less accurate than the “Human imperative.”
There is, however, a danger for humanity, like Cora, to only look back and never forward, and perhaps Colson understands this through Cora’s difficulty in seeing too far into her future where uncertainty reigns supreme and hope is too small and insignificant to count on. For Cora, and for millions of human beings today, fear grips the future tightly while survival rests in fleeing the past—running away from what is behind—by keeping two eyes on what has happened and never a mind on what to do next and this, too, can be a prison unto itself, and Cora explains such a state of mind when she cogitates:
“Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world” (p. 251).
Colson seems to know this as Cora’s adventure takes her to a tiny attic (much like the story of Harriet Ann Jacobs in Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl) where she is locked away from the world day and night for months despite being off the planation and free in North Carolina. From a tiny window in the tiny attic, Cora has a view of the town’s central park and the horrors which transpire every Friday night for the local custom and Colson brilliantly describes these scenes as though one possessed.
“Louisa rolled over to survey the crowd, lifted her head briefly, and was still. It would have been difficult to make out her tormentors with all the blood in her eyes.
“Jamison raised his fists in the air, as if daring something in the sky. The night was his opponent, Cora decided, the night and the phantoms he filled it with. In the dark, he said, colored miscreants lurked to violate the citizens’ wives and daughters. In the deathless dark, their southern heritage lay defenseless and imperiled. The riders kept them safe. ‘We have each of us made sacrifices for this new North Carolina and its rights,’ Jamison said. ‘For this separate nation we have forged, free from northern interference and the contamination of a lesser race. The black horde has been beaten back, correcting the mistake made years ago at this nation’s nativity. Some, like our brothers just over the state line, have embraced the absurd notion of nigger uplift. Easier to teach a donkey arithmetic.’ He bent down to rub Louisa’s head. ‘When we find the odd rascal, our duty is clear.’
“The crowd separated, tutored by routine. With Jamison leading the procession, the night riders dragged the girl to the great oak in the middle of the park” (pgs. 159-160).
With such vivid and detailed descriptions, Colson seems to have a fertile hatred for North Carolina and for any person with the surname “Jamison.”
Regardless, Colson’s greatest ability is to remain objective and within the fictive dream as he must in order to remain true to his story as a piece of literature that transcends into a form of art.
Meanwhile, Cora narrowly escapes a similar fate as Louisa in North Carolina when Ridgeway shows up and claims her as his bounty and escorts her back to the South. Along the way, Colson provides the reader with remarkable descriptions which simultaneously haunt and lure the reader further still into Cora’s uncertain fate:
“Tennessee proceeded in a series of blights. The blaze had devoured the next two towns on the cindered road. In the morning the remains of a small settlement emerged around a hill, an arrangement of scorched timber and black stonework. First came the stumps of the houses that had once contained the dreams of pioneers, and then the town proper in a line of ruined structures. The town father along was larger but its rival in destruction. The heart was a broad intersection where ravaged avenues had converged in enterprise, now gone. A baker’s oven in the ruins of the shop like a grim totem, human remains bent behind the steel of a jail cell” (p. 213).
Colson’s book forms a state of mind which speaks to a deeper understanding of what it means to be American in America today and he appears to ask readers to question what that entails when Cora revisits advice from an old friend as she continues her journey which could end in her death:
“The iron horse still rumbled through the tunnel when she woke. Lumbly’s words returned to her: If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness” (pgs. 262-263).
To see if Cora makes it to freedom or if she dies in the process much like the first version of William Wells Brown’s Clotel, you will just have to read the 2017 Pulitzer Winning book The Underground Railroad, and it is a must read in hopes of better understanding a piece of American history and the human condition.
Thoughts on Comparisons Among:
Brown, William Wells. “Clotel.” Three Classic African–American Novels. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Mentor, 1990. 72-283. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Signet Classics, 2002. (437-665). Print.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003. Print.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clotel (1853) by William Wells Brown, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs all portray slave women who bore children and hope one day to flee from their wretched life and save their offspring.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin Eliza, upon discovery of her son being sold to Haley and down to New Orleans, flees the Shelby estate and heads to the Free states. As she crossed the icy river with her child clung to her bosom “a thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza… it was a desperate leap—impossible to anything but madness and despair” (Stowe, p. 67); but, perhaps, it was such desperation of love of virtue that led Eliza to risk her and her son’s life for that earthly reward called freedom.
Clotel gives another account of a slave mother and a river. Clotel, daughter of Thomas Jefferson, has a child, Mary, with her slave master but attempts to finally escape when she is sold. She crosses a bridge but finds her freedom blocked at the other end and “her resolution was taken. She clasped her hands convulsively, and raised them, as she at the same time raised her eyes toward heaven, and begged for that mercy and compassion there, which had been denied her on earth; and then, with a single bound, she vaulted over the railings of the bridge, and sunk for ever beneath the waves of the river” (Brown, p. 258). Another slave mother, like Eliza, faces death rather than slavery, and once again in an act of desperation fills the pains of lost loves, but this time it is beneath the river rather than across it.
Linda Brent in Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is faced with daily abuses and seductions from her master Dr. Flint. Rather than submit and offer her body to her master, she befriends another white man and bears a child with him, angering her slave owner who desired the pleasure of Brent’s body. And as her child becomes sick she cogitates, “Alas, what mockery it is for a slave mother to try to pray back her dying child to life! Death is better than slavery” (Jacobs, p. 510). Yet again, much like Eliza and Clotel, Brent, in an act of desperation of slavery, would rather have her child face death and freedom than face a life of inhumane servitude as a slave.
In all three tales of a slave mother death remerges as an opportunity for the slaves, the mothers and children, to escape their horrid fate. Such admitted resolve attributes to the detestable daily functions suffered by slaves, and if it were you or I we might light upon our own deaths as a reward far greater than a life as a hapless slave, not for a single day but for fifty or sixty plus deplorable years.
Thoughts On Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987):
Toni Morrison wanted to change the social perception of how historians and people in general viewed slaves; in an interview she stated: “Let’s get rid of these words like ‘the slave woman’ and ‘the slave child,’ and talk about people with names, like you and like me, who were there”. In Beloved, Morrison accomplishes this by assigning an ex-slave woman and mother with human emotions, namely guilt.
Sethe, a slave who won her freedom through escaping, has lost countless children through slavery and death. However, what makes her come alive, compared to other characters in slave literature, is her ability to feel guilt. Slaves, from personal accounts from Douglass, Brown, Brent, and many others were forced to become less than human in their daily actions, and many slaves had to forfeit or suspend the human emotions like love.
Paul D. is another example of lacking long-term emotions by moving around and going from woman to woman. But it is Sethe, connected to some mysterious guilt at the beginning, a tree on her back and a tree in her mind. And even Paul D. comments on Sethe’s back: “Not a tree, as she said. Maybe shaped like one, but nothing like any tree he knew because trees were inviting; things you could trust and be near; talk to if you wanted to as he frequently did since way back when he took midday meal in the fields of Sweet Home” (Chapter 21). This guilt upon Sethe’s mind and back brings her to the forefront of slave characters. She has survived slavery as best she could, but as readers we must first ask: what terrible and terrific (the negative connotation) ordeals has she had to survive?
Like the slaves on the boats having to drink urine to survive—much of simplicity in hellish acts often goes unnoticed. But guilt is a new emotion to slave literature—there has been love in Clotel and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there has been anger and hatred, there has been devotion and tireless perseverance, but up until this point there has not been a slave or ex-slave who has felt guilt quite like Sethe’s, the haunting kind; however, Linda Brent does provide some ambiguous shame in Incidents of a Slave Girl, but there is not a strong sense of remorse because in Brent’s case she chose to do what she had to do to make the best of it; for Sethe readers are left with the impression that she could have avoided some terrible act.
Much like in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Jim, Beloved also has characters who believe in the supernatural and hold their own superstitions.
As Paul D. first enters the house on 124 Bluestone Road he comments to Sethe: “What kind of evil you got in here?” and Sethe replies: “It’s not evil, just sad” (end of Chapter 8). Later as Paul D. and Sethe are becoming intimate, the house begins to violently shakes and Paul D. commits a kind of exorcism by yelling back at the forces, either natural or supernatural: “Leave the place alone! Get the hell out… She got enough without you. She got enough” (end of Chapter 18). Paul D. becomes a kind of protector over the women and seems to banish the ghosts from the house. Paul D. is much like Jim in believing in the supernatural.
As Paul D. buys Sethe and Denver tickets to go to the carnival, Sethe sees the three shadows holding hands and smells roses dying. Roses have often been associated with love and “it is beauty and perfection, happiness and grace, yet it is also sensuality and seduction” (Dictionary of Symbolism). Paul D. has been so use to being on the run, having to “move. Walk. Run. Hide. Steal and move on” that he has found it difficult to truly love (around page 67) and the “best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one” (around page 45). And later, in connection to the dying roses, he begins to notice how Beloved glows as though she is aroused or in heat, wanting a man, perhaps him. The repeated use of “a little bit” also refers to the use of the “bit” on Paul D. for punishment (around page 71).
Milk is the first food of life and it also can be a symbol for “mother” (Dictionary of Symbolism). When Sethe tells Paul D. that the boys and schoolteacher held her down in the bard and stole her milk, she is actually saying that was when she lost her motherhood, which would later lead to her animalistic act of killing her baby. And Paul D. then explains that Halle watched from the loft as his wife’s motherhood was being taken and he did nothing. Sethe makes a mention about Halle saying that “He saw them boys do that to me and let them keep on breathing air? He saw? He saw? He saw?” (around page 69). Paul D. will also reprimand Sethe later on in the novel for not doing the “human” act in saving her child rather than killing it. However, Sethe’s “brain was not interested in the future” (around page 71) because her past had been stolen, taken from her just as her milk was sucked from her as her unborn child, Denver, would be later born into a world without having a motherly connection she so desperately needs.
Morrison offers up a lesson to the modern era and its peoples through a main thread in Beloved. Paul D. asks Stamp Paid (an allusion to paying a debt?): “Tell me this one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take? Tell me. How much?” Stamp replies: “All he can” (around page 236).
Morrison illustrates the hardships of the slaves and their seemingly triumph to extrapolate on a point that many people forget when things get futile and frustrating- that we must take it all, because this is life and there are always more difficulties on the next horizon, but we should not be like Sethe and Denver and Paul D. and Beloved who find them in a house, which could have possibly been a home, and yet they look backwards at their internal prisons and never forward to the NEW Sweet Home they all could have shared. But, even so, by and by: “There is a loneliness that can be rocked” (around page 275) and that leaves us all with a little hope.
All through the story Denver does not have her own story to tell, so she tells her mother’s story. Denver doesn’t even have her own name, being named after Amy Denver who helped Sethe bring Denver into the world. Denver was also ridiculed out of school when the boy asked about her mother being in prison (here we have a connection with the Schoolteacher and Sethe, and Denver and her school issues). Denver becomes withdrawn, unable to speak or go to school. She is quite possibly afraid of her mother due to the murder, further suppressing the ability to mature into a woman. But as Beloved returns, as Denver believes, she begins to live the life she should have had all along. And as they ice skate Denver “stood up and tried for a long, independent glide” (around page 175). Later, Paul D. mentions that Denver was becoming a woman, blossoming, becoming who she was supposed to be: “She turned to [the young man], her face looking like someone had turned up the gas jet” (around page 267). Finally Denver was getting some attention rather than giving it to Sethe, Paul D. or Beloved.
Thoughts on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852):
Harriet Beecher Stowe was what J.K. Rowling is today, a supreme writer and advocate for education and women’s rights.
Stowe remarkably published over thirty books, several being related to education in one shape or another. In addition, she “helped establish the Hartford Art School, which eventually became part of the University of Hartford” (Stowe). Furthermore, she was brave enough to speak against the crimes of slavery when women had no voice in society. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became hugely successful all over the world and was “translated into over 60 languages” (Stowe). These numbers rival J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter (given the inflation rate and population growth).
The greatest impact on her life had to have been the loss of her infant son Samuel. She reported that “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity” (Stowe). And through that pain she was able to help save millions of slaves from more pain, “for neither do men live nor die in vain” (Wells, War of the Worlds, p. 138).
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s use of the authentic dialect, howver, makes for a difficult read. For example: “I can’t jest make out whar ‘tis, but thar’s wrong somehar, I’m clar o’ that” (Stowe p. 108). With pages upon pages filled with such words and phrases time is spent deciphering what is actually being said and how it is being said. If one takes the time to understand the use of the language then the reader is drawn into the story, hearing the culture, the time period, and the heartache of the slaves.
More Thoughts On:
Brown, William Wells. “Clotel.” Three Classic African–American Novels. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Mentor, 1990. 72-283. Print.
—. Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine: A Tale of the Southern States. Fiction: The E-Server Collection. 1994-2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2010. [Link: http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/clotelle.html ]
Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author & Reformer. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969. Print.
Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By Stowe. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003. vii-xvi. Print.
Sommers, Samantha Marie. A Tangled Text: William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853, 1860, 1864, 1867). BA Thesis. Wesleyan University, April, 2009. Print.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003. Print.
Slavery, persecution, and dehumanization were once a fact of life in Antebellum America. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed making it legal for slave-hunters to work with state agencies to collect and return escaped slaves back to their owners. In 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Calvinist writer, published the highly acclaimed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “the greatest fiction success of the nineteenth century”, and created more of a demand for slave fiction than ever before (Kazin, pg. vii).
Then in 1853 came William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of a Slave Life in the United States which was published in England after Brown fled America due to the Fugitive Slave Act. Over the next two decades Brown would revisit and revise the novel three more times, the remaining versions published in the United States. Between December 1860 and March 1861 came the first altered version of Clotel in the American newspaper The Weekly Anglo–African titled Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon: A Romance of American Slavery Founded on Fact, excluding the scenes with the ex-president Thomas Jefferson due to American sentiment (Sommers, pgs. 9 & 30-31).
The third version of Clotel brought a more similar version to Miralda called Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States which was specifically out-fitted for the American Civil War and “part of James Redpath’s dime-novel series, ‘Books for the Camp Fires’” and portraying a cover with Union Soldiers reading around a campfire (Sommers, p. 31). The last of the four Clotel versions came in 1867 and named Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine: A Tale of the Southern States.
The two versions which will be analyzed in this piece will be the 1853 version, published before the Civil War, and the 1867 version, published after the Civil War. For clarification, for the remainder of the piece, I will refer to the two versions as such: ’53 Clotel and ’67 Clotelle. By analyzing parts of Brown’s similitude in the ’53 and ’67 editions of his novel and contrasting the same versions a greater understanding can be gained in the mindset of not only Brown and his publishing counterparts but also in the mindset of the general expectations and perspectives of the general population concerning slavery, both before and after the American Civil War of 1861-1865 and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, in 1865.
To begin, in the 1850s slavery was beginning to lose popularity and abolitionists were gaining ground on swaying public opinion to adopt a slave-free country. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 copies in its first year, adding proof to the general public’s opinion that slavery was becoming outdated (Stowe, inside cover).
William Wells Brown, soon after the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, publishes ’53 Clotel denouncing slavery with dramatic scenes of slaves being torn from their families and being sold on the auction block, despite the light complexion of their skin. Brown writes in ’53 Clotel:
“The appearance of Clotel on the auction block created a deep sensation amongst the crowd. There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo-Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her position” (p. 121).
And in the ’67 Clotelle Brown substitutes the name of Clotel, the president’s daughter, with Isabella, the mother of Clotelle and the mistress of Linwood, while keeping the horrific scene identifiable to its earlier form:
“All eyes were now turned on Isabella, as she was led forward by the auctioneer. The appearance of the handsome quadroon caused a deep sensation among the crowd. There she stood, with a skin as fair as most white women, her features as beautifully regular as any of her sex of pure Anglo-Saxon blood, her long black hair done up in the neatest manner, her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her condition” (Brown, Chapter Two).
What is interesting about these two specific passages is that there was still a need to include these images of a white-toned slave in the ’67 version to the public, two full years after the Civil War had united the nation and slavery was abolished. However, Brown’s intent would be to remind the American public that slavery was not dictated only upon the dark-toned people but also upon individuals who had skin as white as their slave owners, hence the strong reaction from the crowd, because any buyer looking upon the handsome white-skinned quadroon could imagine themselves up on the auctioneer’s platform.
Another example of the similitude of the two novels are the deaths of Clotel and Isabella. In the ’53 Clotel Brown describes the event as thus:
“But God by his Providence had otherwise determined. He had determined that an appalling tragedy should be enacted that night, within plain sight of the President’s house and the capitol of the Union, which should be an evidence wherever it should be known, of the unconquerable love of liberty the heart may inherit; as well as a fresh admonition to the slave dealer, of the cruelty and enormity of his crimes… Seeing escape impossible in that quarter, she stopped suddenly, and turned upon her pursuers… Her resolution was taken. She clasped her hands convulsively, and raised them, as she at the same time raised her eyes towards heaven, and begged for that mercy and compassion there, which had been denied her on earth; and then, with a single bound, she vaulted over the railings of the bridge, and sunk for ever beneath the waves of the river!
“Thus died Clotel, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States; a man distinguished as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the first statesmen of that country” (Brown, p. 258).
In the ’67 Clotelle Brown similarly describes the event as thus:
“But God, by his providence, had otherwise determined. He had ordained that an appalling tragedy should be enacted that night within plain sight of the President’s house, and the Capitol of the Union, which would be an evidence wherever it should be known of the unconquerable love of liberty which the human heart may inherit, as well as a fresh admonition to the slave-dealer of the cruelty and enormity of his crimes… Seeing how vain would be any further effort to escape, her resolution was instantly taken. She clasped her hands convulsively together, raised her tearful and imploring eyes toward heaven, and begged for the mercy and compassion there which was unjustly denied her on earth; then, exclaiming, ‘Henry, Clotelle, I die for thee!’ with a single bound, vaulted over, the railing of the bridge, and sank forever beneath the angry and foaming waters of the river!
“Such was the life, and such the death, of a woman whose virtues and goodness of heart would have done honor to one in a higher station of life, and who, had she been born in any other land but that of slavery, would have been respected and beloved. What would have been her feelings if she could have known that the child for whose rescue she had sacrificed herself would one day be free, honored, and loved in another land?” (Brown, Chapter XVI)
The state of both protagonists suggests that death was more desired than one more moment in the clutches of slavery; heaven, at last, would reward freedom.
Brown, in 1867, would further contemplate the depilated state of the ex-slaves. On January 25, 1867 Brown gave a speech which was later published in February and was meant for “the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Mercantile Hall”:
“Mr. Wm. Wells Brown said he did not think that the people here understood the position of the colored people of the South. He went into a long argument, showing that their condition was vastly worse than before their emancipation. The negroes had been armed under a promise of freedom, and now that freedom was withheld. He did not believe the action of Congress [in failing to act sooner than it did to safeguard the rights of the freedmen] was intentional, but owing entirely to mismanagement and the contemptible meanness of the President. The only safeguard of the race was in impartial suffrage” (Farrison, p. 404).
Although slaves had been freed a need to improve the livelihood of the freed slaves was evident in Brown’s speech and hence the need to publish the ’67 Clotelle in order to remind the public how difficult the life of a slave had been and illustrate how even harder life was after the Civil War.
On the other hand, Brown did make changes between the ’53 Clotel and the ’67 Clotelle to accommodate the changes which had taken place in the general population’s mindset concerning slavery after the Civil War. The Union was now one and slavery was abolished; but as mentioned above, there was still a need for slave literature in order to improve the lives of the African Americans who had been set free. As inferred earlier, Brown transplants the main character in the ’53 Clotel, the president’s daughter, with the name of Isabella, mistress of Linwood and the mother to Clotelle. Furthermore, the ’67 Clotelle’s plot continues the story onward beyond the ’53 Clotel’s ending. In the ’67 Clotelle, Clotelle, the colored heroine, grows up to escape to France and becomes a free woman through marriage. The ’53 story ends with Clotel, still a slave, leaping from the bridge and the ’67 story builds upon the life of the free slave, Clotelle, providing a glimpse of a freed slave’s hopes and dreams coming true—if given the chance.
In addition to these subtle changes, Brown makes some organizational and lexical changes to his story. In the ’53 Clotel, Brown has twenty-nine chapters compared to the ’67 Clotelle with thirty-five chapters, with more of the latter plot being directly related to a life of a freed slave versus the former plot being strictly bound to the life of a slave. Likewise, in the earlier edition of Brown’s novel, the use of the word “freedom” appears thirty-seven times and the use of the word “slavery” emerges fifty-nine times.
In the ’67 edition, during the American Reconstruction, Brown uses these two words scarcely: “freedom” is written roughly thirteen times and “slavery” comes out only seventeen times. The apparent discrepancy in the use of both these words is probably due to the fact that slavery was still in existence during the earlier publication and a need for stressing these two issues would have been a required necessity, while the latter version would not require much emphasis on “freedom” and “slavery” but rather a need to remind the general population about the hardships that the African Americans had suffered during and after slavery.
Lastly, the ’53 Clotel was published in England and mainly for the British. The ’67 edition was published in America for Americans. Brown comments on his ’53 Clotel being an issue which the British government should take notice of “since slavery had been introduced into the American colonies while they were controlled by the British government” and that “Englishmen should feel a lively interest in its abolition… and thereby aid in bringing British influence to bear upon American slavery” (Farrison, p. 216). The ’67 Clotelle would have had an alternative purpose, one being to remind the general population of the existing scars the freed slaves would still have been afflicted by and not entirely to bring about the end of slavery, as the first edition was designed and written to specifically do.
In conclusion, William Wells Brown will likely be remembered as one of the greatest African American writers of any generation due to his ability and to aid his fellow man in abolishing that evil act which long held him captive. Brown accomplishes to sway his reading audience by purposefully designing two novels in order to achieve two desired results: the ’53 Clotel was meant to sway British influence to assist in the abolition of American slavery, while the ’67 Clotelle was written to remind the general American population of the hardships slaves had undergone before the Civil War and the struggles which still faced the freed slaves during the Reconstruction effort of the late 1860s. In sum, it is cogent that the latter version provides a brighter chronicle, granting a more cheerful and happier ending than its predecessor which was published during the dark times of slavery; but both editions, as well as the other two, will continue to remind the unified states of America of its dark past and of the bright future of our country’s people.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 375,000+ followers