An African American Life?

February 12, 2015   •   By Jordan Alexander Stein

William Wells Brown: An African American Life

Ezra Greenspan

NO ONE’S SURPRISED to learn that millions of African Americans in the 19th century were slaves. Even the poorest student of US history has a hard time ignoring this fact. But for those of us who teach 19th-century history and literature, it is often the case that students wander into our classrooms completely unaware that outside the bonds of enslavement many African Americans also contributed — sometimes in pioneering ways — to the shape that US culture and politics took in the 19th century.

The reason our students carry this ignorance is often, paradoxically, that they are good students. They have learned what they have been taught, and one of the things that they have been taught is that knowledge and innovation are overwhelmingly the province of white men. This lesson stubbornly endures, though it has never been true, and though many scholars and teachers have long worked to revise it.

An important effort in that revision came amid campus protests of the late 1960s, when the Ford Foundation created funding for what would become the first Black Studies programs at US universities. These programs were initially designed to educate white college students about the history, literature, culture, and politics of the African Americans with whom in increasing numbers (thanks to the end of de jure segregation) they would be sharing college campuses.

The ways that Black Studies programs developed this initial mission is a complicated story, but what can be observed more simply is that, then and now, there remained something of an open question as to what this mission would look like were it to be accomplished. If African American history were squared with the dominant models of US history that obtained in the post-WWII period, would that create a more complete US history (as though African American history were a missing piece of a puzzle) or would that alchemically transform the essence of US history (as though African American history were a key ingredient in a recipe)?

Depending on how scholars have answered this question, they have approached African American history from two different directions. The most successful way to complete the puzzle has been to focus on representative African Americans. Scholars have turned to figures like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, and Harriet Jacobs, finding in their lives and works stories about African American lives and works as such. From the other direction, the most successful way to complete the recipe has been to move away from individual lives and toward more abstract assessments of overall structure — particularly, of how race is constructed and racism is reinforced through the micro-movements of culture, politics, and economy. With a few exceptions, these intellectual paths have mostly diverged. Thus, the question of disciplinary mission remains open.

Should anyone want to bring these approaches for estimating the relation of African American history to US history together, William Wells Brown offers a timely and powerful test case. Though an important historical figure, the details of Brown’s biography and career can be difficult to recognize as representatively American. Among the most prolific African American writers in the 19th century, and probably the first to earn a living exclusively from his creative work, Brown’s career owed much to chance. At about age 20, he escaped slavery along the Underground Railroad. Soon after crossing into freedom in Ohio he married impulsively and, 10 years later, separated from his wife quite publicly. He wandered northeast and into a career as an abolitionist lecturer, though contemporary accounts renowned him for his singing. His transformative half-decade sojourn in Europe strains on the “American” in his African American identity. Unlike Frederick Douglass — self-made, clever, assertively masculine, eloquent and tireless for the abolitionist cause — Brown is a slyer figure, canny, calculating, creative, and very difficult to pigeonhole. To think about Brown as a representative figure, then, raises instead tacit questions about what we might mean when we talk about “African American history” as a singular category. For these reasons and more, Greenspan’s recent biography William Wells Brown: An African American Life is a political and intellectual boon.


William Wells Brown is organized by the chronological conventions of biography, and it shies away from narrating the historiographic and political issues raised above. At the same time, it is a narrative that, to the careful reader’s eye, wrestles mightily with these issues. Among the most successful of the study’s historiographic challenges is its handling of the fragmentary nature of its sources. Though Brown was propelled to notoriety by his 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, some of the details of his autobiographical writings are incomplete, some are dubious, and some were revised in subsequent editions. Likewise, his extant letters sometimes describe the same events quite differently to different addressees. Meanwhile, the whole of his textual legacy — correspondence, editions, and ephemera — has not been systematically collected, and what does exist is scattered in archives across North America and Europe. It would be an enormous challenge merely to survey all these documents, let alone to synthesize them.

Greenspan proves himself equal to the task. The documentation he provides is astonishingly thorough, and the interpretations he offers are admirably careful and thoughtful. In many places, Greenspan details the evidence on which he bases his conclusions, showcasing (without, it should be appreciated, showing off) just how considerable an undertaking the book’s research must have been. When he offers an educated guess — regarding, say, what motivated Brown to make an idiosyncratic decision — the ground for such an interpretation is clearly (and often persuasively) presented. When Greenspan confronts a silence in the historical record, he notes it humbly and clearly. What’s more remarkable still is that all this caution and care folds seamlessly into a highly readable account. William Wells Brown proceeds in a crisp and direct prose style, rich in detail but free of melodramatic flourishes and cant.

The achievements of the book are many, but among the greatest is the restoration of Brown to his place as a pioneering lecturer and performance artist. Greenspan accomplishes this work in two ways. First, he lavishes careful attention on each of Brown’s creative projects, giving equal time to the publications that survive and the performances that only survive through secondary reports. Several pages of close reading for each of Brown’s works punctuate the narrative. These interpretations tend to be more thoroughly informed by existing scholarship than counterintuitively original. But they masterfully align print and performance — two phenomena whose distinctions Brown actively blurred. For example, discussion of Brown’s compilation of abolitionist songs, The Anti-Slavery Harp (1848), focuses not only on its physical properties (as the cheaply printed pamphlet now handled by visitors to rare books libraries), but also on its social circulation (as a kind of prop from which Brown would have sung to close out his speeches, and which he would have sold to the audience afterward).

The richly contextualizing sensibility that Greenspan brings to Brown’s publications and performances extends to many other scenes in the narrative. The second way that this study restores Brown’s accomplishments, then, is to evaluate them against a broad canvass of the colors, patterns, and textures of Brown’s own time. William Wells Brown provides a wealth of details through which to understand its protagonist and his supporting cast; what’s more, these details are treated with a gentle honesty — far in tone and scope from hagiography. As the United States heads toward Civil War in the mid-1850s, for example, Brown is carefully positioned not just within the abolitionist movement, but within its fissures. Loyal to Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s rejection of national politics at a moment when such commitments looked increasingly conservative, Brown’s views are set against those of gradualists, radicals, and black nationalists. The picture that emerges is one of fractiousness and calamity, in which ordinary people doubled-down maybe just as often as they rose up. Attention to such low-frequency ambivalences brings into delicate relief the thoughts and feelings that Brown may have brought to bear on his relationships to people and to ideas. I’m hard-pressed to come up with many other biographies that present their principal subject with as much humanity as does William Wells Brown.


William Wells Brown deserves significant credit for wrestling deep humanity out of the flotsam of archival miscellanies. At the same time, it does so with such skill that the miscellaneous nature of Brown’s archive feels almost under-acknowledged. While surely a biographer’s task is to reassemble a person’s life from textual evidence, the textual evidence of Brown’s life is, in complex ways, inconsistent. William Wells Brown treats this complex inconsistency as a problem to be solved, much more than as a set of conditions to be weighed in their own right. Put differently, biographical research obeys the rules of its genre, yet the genre’s rules were not things that Brown seems to have much respected.

The readiest example comes from Brown’s best-known publication, Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1852), widely famed as the first African American novel. As nearly all its modern readers have noticed, however, “African American novel” is a tenuous designation for a sprawling story that blends fact, fiction, and memoir, that stars passably light-skinned characters, and that was written and published during its author’s exile in London. Of these features, it is the generic blending of Clotel that has given literary historians the greatest pause, for Brown’s quiet plagiarisms from other writers as well as his previous publications, and his occasional outright falsifications of meetings or relationships, strain the kinds of originality (and, indeed, propriety) that literary historians associate with authorship.

William Wells Brown acknowledges Brown’s genre-bending in summary detail. We learn that Brown “ran riot over the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction,” that he “foraged through the archives of contemporary print culture, collecting and adapting excerpts from dozens of books, newspapers, magazines, and learned journals: anthologies of music and poetry, speeches, sermons, travelogues, polemics, fugitive-slave narratives, law codes, biographies, hymnals, literature, the Bible, and advertisements,” that he “appropriated from friend and foe alike,” and that he “borrowed about one-third of the novel’s contents from printed sources, including his own.” Consistent with its treatment of other of Brown’s creative works, William Wells Brown contextualizes this print performance, but it shies away from trying to speculate why Clotel is as unapologetically weird as it is. Generally speaking, it’s hard to arrive at a real understanding of someone’s motives if we’re trying to excuse their behavior.

Though William Wells Brown may abide the genre of biography, one cannot insist on the study’s conventionality without underplaying how dynamic it also manages to be. As I suggested above, the study is meticulous in its attention to cultural and ideological contradictions, to the energetic frisson of social theater, to historical twists and turns. The fact that it manages to capture this kind of nuance in such a coherent, readable narrative is an impressive writerly feat. As a story of the life of a representative African American, William Wells Brown is among the best scholarly works I can imagine. The only caveat here is that William Wells Brown positions itself as a story about a representative African American — and such positioning is far from inevitable.

Thus, however magesterially this biography conventionalizes Brown’s life, it does so at some potential cost to Brown’s anomalousness. In a sense, this study’s commitments to biographical conventions can be read as an attempt to use the template of, say, a Frederick Douglass or some other 19th-century man, to map Brown’s life. Such a model was not precisely anything that Brown was (nor, as far as I can tell from Greenspan’s research, anything that Brown precisely wanted to be). Brown’s accomplishments can be measured by the man he became; they can also be measured by all that he undid and redid and left half done. Brown clearly took pride in his identities as an abolitionist, a writer, a father, and a self-made man. But he was also an iconoclast, remarkably attuned to the creative possibilities of his time and place. Conventional genres like biography are not always the best registers for such idioms of vernacular knowledge.

To emphasize the above does not dispute William Wells Brown so much as mark a consequence of its argument — and this is a remarkable strength of the book. Few readers will be able to put this biography down without having deepened their appreciation of the twisting contradictions of US history. Such an account certainly holds open the possibility that US history as we know it has been written in a way that fundamentally cannot accommodate the addition of some parts of African American history, though its project necessarily remains on the side of documenting a representative life. Greenspan has given us invaluable missing pieces. The task ahead will be to determine how and whether we might use them as missing ingredients.


Jordan Alexander Stein is Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University.