The dramatic and sensational narrative that William Wells Brown crafts in Clotel captivates readers and pushes them to explore the principles of slavery and politics in early America. “Slavery” is a vast reference to the host of race-driven issues that perpetuated in the country, containing subsets of conflicts in colorism, religion, and regional loyalism for the North or South. Different characters are elevated or lessened on the basis of skin tone or religious affiliations. Brown expertly navigates the nature of these problems with a lens of exceptionalism for both America and, more specifically, the South. For much of the writing, Brown employs a brand of southern exceptionalism that isolates the United States’ problems to the South, diametrically opposed to the southern exceptionalism that highlights hospitality and warmth.
Toward the beginning of the novel, readers follow Clotel’s mother, Currer, as she is forced to leave the North and is sold into Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez boasts a “notoriety for the inhumanity and barbarity of its inhabitants” — a statement which Browns expounds upon with horror stories of dog attacks and lynchings of enslaved people (87). The chapter closes after a gruesome description of a man being burned at the stake and the event that was made out of it:
“Nearly 4,000 slaves were collected from the plantations in the neighbourhood to witness this scene. Numerous speeches were made by the magistrates and ministers of religion to the large concourse of slaves, warning them, and telling them that the same fate awaited them, if they should prove rebellious to their owners…Currer was one of those who witnessed the execution of the slave at the stake, and it gave her no very exalted opinion of the people of the cotton growing district” (91).
Brown here uses Currer’s thread of the Clotel narrative to highlight a particular kind of “northern” disgust with southern principles of morality and politics. Currer, having lived and worked in a pseudo-bearable climate in the North, enters into an entirely hostile space where enslaved people are treated fully as negligible property, preventing all “exalted opinion” (91). Readers then must explore Currer’s propensity toward southern exceptionalism in the way of identifying its most unbelievable behaviors that northerners could not imagine occurring in their region of the country. The shock Currer receives in moving from one situation to another so vastly different is both devastating and fascinating in the pursuit of exposing southern exceptionalism. By conducting her sentiment toward the “cotton growing district,” Currer exposes a mode of American exceptionalism in which the country’s superiority is promoted on the basis that its most prominent injustices exist only in one region (91).
In 1853, the National Anti-Slavery Standard reflects on Clotel in its piece “W.W. Brown’s New Work.” The Standard was a newsletter released by the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded by William Lloyd Garrison. The Standard highly praises Brown in his personal accomplishments and skilled writing abilities. It reflects on an idea that if all Americans were like Brown, outsiders would no longer have to second handedly suffer the exhausting American controversy and talk of liberties, so that they “should hear nothing of the right which one man has to keep his fellow man in hopeless servitude” (218). Readers abroad use Clotel as an outlet to convey their exhaustion of the ever-growing spirit of American exceptionalism and its willful ignorance of morality and humanity. The piece also brings forth a mildly controversial idea that “if every slave possessed the determination, energy, boldness, and perseverance which distinguish William Wells Brown, the labours of the Abolitionist might cease at once” (219). This is a bold assertion that all enslaved people could be free by the mere power of will. Considering the authorial background, one might set aside this lofty comment on the basis that they simply could not comprehend the gravity and impossibility of slavery in America.
In 1854, the Bristol Mercury, a popular “reformist” newspaper in Bristol, explores the novel in its article “Clotel,” possessing a similar air of admiration for Brown as the former article. However, it remarks more on Brown’s aptitude for dramatism while still incorporating “the truth of the incidents and…all the semblance of reality” (223). The article maintains a caustic tone toward America, holding it responsible for “the miseries, anomalousness, and abominable injustice of the system which is the opprobrium of the great republic of the West” (223). Through and through, Brown and his work are received positively abroad, which consequently highlights the disgust that outside nations possessed toward American exceptionalism.
Brian Ward dives into the rich history and groundwork upon which William Wells Brown would later emerge as the first African-American novelist. In his book “Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne,” Ward invokes Olaudah Equiano, who used his tragic autobiography as a means to bolster the abolitionist movement. Ward notes that Equiano’s involvement with publicizing a controversial massacre of enslaved people “marked Equiano’s emergence as a major, rather exotic figure in British abolitionist circles” (Ward 83). This reception of Equiano in Britain is a social foundation of how Brown would be received around seventy years later with the heart-wrenching creation that is Clotel.
Brown, William Wells. Clotel. Edited by Geoffrey Sanborn, Broadview Press, 2016.
Southern Ideas of Liberty. [Boston?: s.n] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2008661271/>.
Ward, Brian. Martin Luther King in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2017.