|Clotel: Or, the President's Daughter|
Title page, first edition
|Author||William Wells Brown|
|Publisher||Partridge & Oakey|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||320 pp (paperback edition) (current UK)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-14-243772-7 (paperback edition) (current UK)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.4 22|
|LC Classification||PS1139.B9 C53 2004|
Clotel; or, The President's Daughter is an 1853 novel by United States author and playwright William Wells Brown, an escaped slave from Kentucky who was active on the anti-slavery circuit. Brown published the book in London, where he stayed to evade possible recapture due to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, but it is considered the first novel published by an African American and is set in the United States, reflecting the southern institution of slavery. Three additional versions were published through 1867.
The novel explores slavery's destructive effects on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mulattoes or mixed-race people, and the "degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America." It is a tragic mulatto story about a woman named Currer and her daughters Althesa and Clotel, fathered by Thomas Jefferson; their relatively comfortable lives end after Jefferson's death.
The novel played with known 19th-century reports that Thomas Jefferson had an intimate relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and fathered several children with her. Of mixed race and described as nearly white, she was believed to be the half sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, the youngest of six children by her father John Wayles with his slave Betty Hemings. The large Hemings family were among more than 100 slaves inherited by Martha and Thomas Jefferson after her father's death. Martha died when Jefferson was 40 and he never remarried.
Although Jefferson never responded to the rumors, historians believe that his freeing of the four Hemings' children as they came of age is significant: he let Beverly (a male) and his sister Harriet Hemings "escape" in 1822 from Monticello, and freed two by his will in 1826, although he was heavily in debt. His daughter gave Hemings "her time", so she was able to live freely in Charlottesville with her two youngest sons, Madison and Eston Hemings, for the rest of her life. Except for three other Hemings men whom Jefferson freed in his will, the rest of his 130 slaves were sold in 1827. A 1998 DNA study confirmed a match between the Jefferson male line and Eston Hemings' direct male descendant. Based on this and the body of historic evidence, most Jeffersonian scholars have come to accept that Jefferson did father Hemings' children in a long relationship.
As an escaped slave, due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, William Wells Brown was at risk in the United States. He stayed in England for years, where he published Clotel, the first novel published by an African American, in London in 1853. In 1854 a British couple purchased his freedom, and Brown returned to the US.
|“||This, reader, is an unvarnished narrative of one doomed by the laws of the Southern States to be a slave. It tells not only its own story of grief, but speaks of a thousand wrongs and woes beside, which never see the light; all the more bitter and dreadful, because no help can relieve, no sympathy can mitigate, and no hope can cheer.||”|
——Narrator of Clotel, Page 199.
The narrative of Clotel plays with history by relating the "perilous antebellum adventures" of a young slave Currer and her mixed-race, light-skinned daughters fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Their girls are born into slavery. The book includes "several sub-plots" related to other slaves, religion and anti-slavery. Currer, described as "a bright mulatto," gives birth to two "near white" daughters: Clotel and Althesa. After the death of Jefferson, Currer and her daughters are sold.
Horatio Green, a white man, purchases Clotel and takes her as a common-law wife, although they cannot legally marry. Her mother Currer and sister Althesa remain "in a slave gang." Currer is eventually purchased by Mr. Peck, a preacher. She is enslaved until she dies from yellow fever, although his daughter was preparing to emancipate her.
Althesa marries her white owner, Henry Morton, a Northerner, with whom she has daughters Jane and Ellen. Their daughters are enslaved after Althesa and Morton both die. Ellen commits suicide to escape sexual enslavement and Jane dies from heartbreak.
Green and Clotel have a mixed-race daughter named Mary. Becoming ambitious and involved in local politics, Green abandons Clotel and Mary. He marries "a white woman who forces him to sell Clotel and enslave his child."
Dressing as a white man, Clotel escapes to Ohio (an account based on the 1849 escape of Ellen Craft and William Craft). Her accomplice, William, continues to Canada. Clotel returns to Virginia in an attempt to free Mary. After being captured in Richmond, she is held in a slave pen in Washington, DC, for sale but eventually escapes. Pursued by slave catchers, she is surrounded on the Long Bridge and commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River.
Thus died Clotel, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States.——Narrator of Clotel, Page 182
Mary works as a servant to her father Horatio Green and his wife. Mary arranges to trade places with the slave George, her lover, in prison and he escapes to Canada. Sold to a slave trader, Mary is purchased by a French man who takes her to Europe. Ten years later, George and Mary reunite in Dunkirk. The novel ends with their marriage.
Semi-autonomous slave of Thomas Jefferson; mother of Clotel and Althesa. Currer is "Sally Hemings fictional counterpart." Instead of being a source of direct labor for Jefferson, she works as a laundresses and exchanges her income for a "pseudo-freedom" for her and her daughters. She is purchased by Rev. Peck.
Daughter of Currer and Jefferson; sister to Althesa. At 16 years old, she is purchased by Horatio Green, with whom she later has a daughter, Mary. Later in the narrative, she escapes from another owner in Vicksburg, MS, with William while disguised as a gentleman, Mr. Johnson.
Daughter of Currer and Jefferson; sister to Clotel. Purchased at 14 years old by James Crawford and resold to Dr. Morton, who married her and with whom they had two daughters, Jane and Ellen.
Daughter of Clotel and Horatio Green; George Green’s lover and future wife. She switches places with George in prison, allowing him to escape dressed as a woman. She is eventually sold to a French man who takes her to Europe, where, after the death of the French man, she is reunited with George and they wed.
Slave in the service of Horatio Green; Mary’s lover and future husband. After escaping prison, he flees to the free states, evades recapture in Ohio with the help of a Quaker, and then goes to Britain via Canada. Ten years after arriving in England, he travels to Dunkirk, France, where he reencounters Mary.
First man to purchase Clotel after Jefferson’s death; Clotel’s lover; Mary’s biological father.
Daughter of Reverend Peck.
Father of Georgiana Peck. He purchases Currer and then tasks her with kitchen and household affairs.
A mechanic enslaved alongside Clotel in Vicksburg. After having paid his master from his earnings as a mechanic, he was able to secret away $150, which he and Clotel then leverage in an escape.
Clotel demonstrates the "pervasive, recurring victimization of black women under slavery. Even individuals of mixed-race status who attempt to pass as white nevertheless suffer horrifically." It exposes "the insidious intersection of economic gain and political ambition—represented by founding fathers such as Jefferson and Horatio Green." It is a "scathing, sarcastic, comprehensive critique of slavery in the American South, race prejudice in the American North, and religious hypocrisy in the American notion as a whole." The novel and the title "walk a precarious line between oral history, written history, and artistic license."
Recent scholars have analyzed Clotel for its representations of gender and race. Sherrard-Johnson notes that Brown portrayed both the "tragic central characters " and the "heroic figures" as mulattoes with Anglo features, similar to his own appearance. She thinks he uses the cases of "nearly white" slaves to gain sympathy for his characters. She notes that he borrowed elements from the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child's plot in her short story, "The Quadroons" (1842). He also incorporated notable elements of recent events, such as the escape of the Crafts, and the freedom suit court case of Salome, a slave in Louisiana who claimed to be a native-born German immigrant.
Martha Cutter notes that Brown portrayed his women characters generally as passive victims of slavery and as representations of True Women and the cult of domesticity, which were emphasized at the time for women. They are not portrayed as wanting or seeking freedom, but as existing through love and suffering. Cutter asks, if Mary could free George, why did she not free herself? Although Brown published three other versions of Clotel, he did not seriously change this characterization of the African-American women. There were women who were known to have escaped slavery, including Ellen Craft, but Brown did not portray such women fully achieving freedom. Other women legally challenged slavery in the courts by freedom suits.
In addition to being the first novel published by an African American, Clotel became the model for other nineteenth-century African American writers. It is also the first instance of an African American writer "to dramatize the underlying hypocrisy of democratic principles in the face of African American slavery."
Brown published three variations of Clotel in the 1860s, but did not markedly change his portrayal of the African-American women characters.
According to its preface, Clotel is a polemic narrative against slavery written for a British audience:
If the incidents set forth in the following pages should add anything new to the information already given to the Public through similar publications, and should thereby aid in bringing British influence to bear upon American slavery, the main object for which this work was written will have been accomplished.——Preface, Page 47
It is also considered a propagandistic narrative, in that Brown leveraged "sentimentality, melodrama, contrived plots, [and] newspaper articles" as devices "to damage the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery."
Clotel is told through the use of a "third-person limited omniscient narrator." The narrator is "morally didactic and consistently ironic." The narrative is fragmented, in that it "combines fact, fiction, and external literary sources." It presents the reader with a structure that is episodic and is informed by "legends, myths, music, and concrete eye-witness accounts of the fugitive slaves themselves" and it also "draws on antislavery lectures and techniques" such as "abolitionist verse and fiction, newspaper stories and ads, legislative reports, public addresses, private letters, and personal anecdotes."
- duCille p. 443
- Gabler-Hover p. 248
- Brown p. 82
- Castronovo p. 442
- Fabi p. 11
- Brown p. 199
- Gabler-Hover p. 249
- Sherrard-Johnson p. 206
- Cutter p. 149
- Cutter p. 149-150
- duCille p. 444
- Brown p. 182
- Cutter p. 150
- Mitchell p. 8
- Sherrard-Johnson p. 207
- Bell p. 42
- Mitchell p. 9
- Brown p. 47
- Brown p. 176
- Mitchell p. 11
- Brown p. 84
- Bell p. 39
- Bell p. 40
- Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
- Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. 1853. Ed. Robert Levine. Boston: Bedford, 2000.
- Castronovo, Russ. "National Narrative and National History." A Companion to American Fiction, 1780-1865. Ed. Shirley Samuels. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 434-444.
- Cutter, Martha. Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
- duCille, Ann. "Where in the World Is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History." American Literary History 12.3 (Autumn, 2000). 443-462. JSTOR.
- Fabi, M. Giulia. Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
- Gabler-Hover, Janet. "Clotel." American History Through Literature, 1820-1870. New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 2005. 248-253.
- Kirkpatrick, Mary Alice. "William Wells Brown and Summary of 'Clotel.'" Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina, accessed 7 May 2011.
- Mitchell, Angelyn. "Her Side of His Story: A Feminist Analysis of Two Nineteenth-Century Antebellum Novels—William Wells Brown’s Clotel and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig." American Literary Realism 24.3 (April 1992). 7-21.
- Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. "Delicate Boundaries: Passing and Other 'Crossings' in Fictionalized Slave Narratives." A Companion to American Fiction, 1780-1865. Ed. Shirley Samuels. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 204-215.