William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings, which has just been published by The Library of America. Greenspan holds the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Chair in Humanities and is professor of English at Southern Methodist University.
Why read William Wells Brown, and why now?
Why Brown? Because he pioneered virtually every genre of African American writing. Want to know black culture in his revolutionary time and as it has come down to us today? Read William Wells Brown. Because he was the most rivetingly inventive, entertaining black writer of his era. And because he was, as a mid-twentieth-century critic noted, a person unable to be uninteresting.
Why Brown now? Because he was arguably the parent of our postmodern cultural concerns/preoccupations a century before they were born. Fragmentation, alternating perspectives, sampling, multimedia, generic confusion were his signature practices—all the more interesting for us because they came about in a different cultural era and in response to different historical exigencies.
Clotel concerns a subject—Thomas Jefferson’s black descendants—that has drawn an unusual amount of interest. Why is this subject so fascinating?
An undergraduate student commented to me earlier today that one needs to be careful in Texas about challenging core beliefs about myths of American origins and exceptionalism. I don’t think Texas is exceptional in that regard. Clotel puts on a show that fascinates, in part, because it savages such beliefs. It goes after the father of American fathers and exposes the fundamental hypocrisy between his creed (“all men are created equal”) and practice. The fictions of blood, family, and national union that Jefferson (and Brown’s white father) created and embodied still survive in our culture and polity, though with greater contestation than in Brown’s time. Are we one people? On what basis do we define our peoplehood? And what has skin color got to do with it? Clotel asked hard questions that we are still asking today.
Discoveries made while preparing the collection? While writing the biography?
Many, many—out of which a few. Ralph Ellison had profound reasons for calling people of color “invisible.” One that I discovered in the course of researching Brown is that, politics and ideology aside, it is very hard to make people visible who left behind no archive of papers, letters, diaries, and the like. To this day, I have not seen a single letter between Brown and any member of his family—this, and he is the most prolific African American writer of his era. Writing full-scale biographies of minorities is excruciatingly difficult work.
A second: the kind of singular personhood that I had thought I would find in Brown’s writings did not exist. He danced around the expected correlation between his life, authorship, and autobiographical subject. I don’t mean to say that Brown fabricated his life, say, in the Narrative of William W. Brown, but he was a crafty fellow and many people have read him too literally and simply. My lesson: check the facts as carefully as possible before accepting his testimony.
How would you compare Brown to his famous contemporary Frederick Douglass? How did Brown himself view the comparison?
FD v. WWB—One, the greatest nineteenth-century African American public figure; the other, the greatest nineteenth-century African American cultural figure.
Men with strikingly similar backgrounds (white father, black mother; border state background; extraordinary powers of observation, expression, persuasion; unswerving sense of duty to the collective).
Equally, men with strikingly different temperaments and powers: Douglass a charismatic figure who sucked the oxygen out of a room, intellectually powerful, inclined to the dramatic, a natural leader; Brown culturally sophisticated, personally polished, inclined to indirection and irony.
Brown would have sided with Dogberry: comparisons were “odorous.” He was constantly compared to Douglass and hated it.
What qualities as a writer and a man allowed Brown to pioneer so many different genres of African American writing?
For one thing, lack of formal education. He did not have to unlearn deeply engrained lessons about literary forms. I would guess, rather, that he could see the forms (and their arbitrariness) all the more clearly for viewing them from the outside in. For another, endless curiosity, flexibility of temperament, and heedlessness about the possibility of failure.
What drew you to Brown as the subject for a biography?
The books. So many remarkable books, I thought, without at first connecting them back to their source. Then, once I started to think biographically, the person. When the life and the work start to converge in intriguing fashion, literary biography gets born.