Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave / Second Edition
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Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. With its four American and five British editions appearing before 1850, Brown's Narrative, second in popularity only to Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, brought him international celebrity. Brown later spent several years abroad, attending a peace conference in Paris lecturing for England's antislavery movement. While in England, he published a travel narrative, Three Years in Europe; or, Places I have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). A year later, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, widely recognized as the first African American novel, was published. As a professional writer, Brown produced a range of works, including the first African American play, The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858), two volumes of African American history, three additional versions of Clotel, and a final autobiography, My Southern Home; or, the South and Its People (1880). On November 6, 1884, William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
As William Wells Brown's first published work and his most widely read autobiography, the 1847 Narrative occupies an important place within not only his oeuvre but also the broader African American literary tradition.
Brown's earliest memories are of serving as a house servant, first near Lexington, Kentucky, and then in Missouri. Later, when his master, Dr. Young, pursues his political career and is absent from the plantation, Young subjects his slaves to the cruel tyranny of Mr. Cook, the overseer. Once Dr. Young relocates to just outside St. Louis, both Brown and his mother are hired out. Working under the harsh Major Freeland, he first attempts escape; yet, the young Brown is treed quickly by hounds and severely whipped upon his return. Brown's narrative includes a veritable catalogue of slaves' violent mistreatment at the hands of brutally vicious masters and overseers. Yet, while recounting these horrors, Brown maintains a strong narrative voice that highlights the ability of the narrator to employ literary stylistics to promote his story. On more than one occasion, the narrator—while recounting details of this abuse—comments on the particular unparalleled cruelty of northern slave owners. In a similarly ironic vein, Brown exposes the hypocrisy of so-called "Christian masters." Tongue-in-cheek, he discusses when his master "got religion," which resulted in the immediate cessation of all Sunday leisure activities for slaves. The master also hired a preacher who offered diatribes on slaves' duties to their masters. Brown also comments wryly on his master and mistress's fondness for mint juleps, particularly during morning prayers.