Clotel, Southern Exceptionalism, and Sensationalism

Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter follows the tragic story of three generations of enslaved women in the American South. Throughout the story, author William Wells Brown harshly critiques the institution of slavery in the United States and calls for its demise. Brown knew the first hand the horrors of enslavement as he was born into slavery. After escaping, he moved to England in 1849 with his family and continued to lecture for abolition in the states. His critiques of the of the United States were strong but not unfounded. In Clotel he wrote:

“What an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself, in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives, whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow-men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose! But we must wait with patience the workings of an overruling Providence, and hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full—when their tears shall have involved heaven itself in darkness—doubtless a God of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to things of this world, and that they are not left to the guidance of blind fatality.”

The same man, speaking of the probability that the slaves might some day attempt to gain their liberties by a revolution, said,

“I tremble for my country, when I recollect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep for ever. The Almighty has no attribute that can take sides with us in such a struggle.”

But, sad to say, Jefferson is not the only American statesman who has spoken high-sounding words in favor of freedom, and then left his own children to die slaves.

Jefferson is considered an American hero to this day as a founding father. By calling out his hypocrisy, Brown illuminates the toxicity in American exceptionalism. The fundamental structure of the United States was built upon the promise of freedom and the enslavement of human beings. Jefferson’s heartfelt plea to his country to fight against Britain means nothing when that very country falls short of giving basic liberties to all of its citizens.

This is my second time studying Clotel, and during this read through I found myself analyzing Brown’s message differently. Overall the story calls for the end of slavery, but the story line takes the most dramatic turns. For example, one moment Clotel and Horatio are living in secret blissfully, the next Horatio chooses to marry a politician’s daughter and abandon Clotel for his own social gain. The story takes several twists and turns and puts Clotel through the absolute situations a person could be in.

Upon first reading, I figured this was simply to add some spice and to keep the reader interested. After all, no one said fiction had to be completely believable. During this read through I reflected on just why Brown decided to make this novel read like a reality show. He had a clear intention in his writing to make the audience realize the horrors of slavery and why it should be abolished. Why would he need the most dramatic, outlandish plot to prove this point?

To understand Brown’s choice, I thought about the most sensational work of fiction I read in my college career. I quickly landed on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Now, do not think that I think Faulkner’s work is anything like Clotel. Sanctuary is difficult to read, even for a Faulkner story. It follows the story and aftermath of the sexual assault of a young woman in Mississippi. Faulkner himself knew the story was exaggerated writing in the 1932 Modern Library edition:

“To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money. … I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to (Harrison) Smith, who had done ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and who wrote me immediately, ‘Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.”

Sanctuary had no real purpose in playing into racist Southerner’s fears. It was a deliberate cash grab on Faulkner’s part that only added more hostility to a segregated south.

In comparison, Brown’s choices in Clotel are a much more deliberate shock to the reader to work against their preconceived notions. By making Clotel and Althesa the daughters of Thomas Jefferson, Brown forces the reader to consider the real life implications of Jefferson’s mixed race children being born into slavery. By having Clotel suffer in her heartbreak from Horatio, the sympathetic white woman relates to her pain and also examines her family’s history with enslavement. Brown’s story is sensational, but it is not purely for entertainment; it is to show the absolute worst things a human can experience.

These dramatic choices are ones we could reflect on today as fake news spreads faster than ever. Sometimes, sensationalism acts as a way to wake up the public and to recognize major issues that need addressing. When not used correctly, it leads to mass panic over the wrong issues. Information is powerful and should be shared appropriately as to not cause more harm than good. 

Works cited:

Brown, William Wells, and Geoffrey Sanborn. Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter. Broadview Press, 2016. 

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. Modern Library, 1932.

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