“Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter” is the first novel published by an African American – it was published in London in 1853 while William Wells Brown, the author, was still living there following his final escape from slavery, an education and the purchase of his freedom by a British couple. The situations in the book, although fictional in themselves, are probably very representative of exactly what slavery in the US was about. But much of it is propaganda to instill anger into more abolitionists and in that way is similar to 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup which was published the same year and that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published only the year prior.
Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter
by William Wells Brown
1853 / 320 pages
read by J.D. Jackson 8h 43m
rating: 10 – / classic with great historical value
(both read and listened)
The book as we read it was not published in the United states until 1969. Instead Brown rewrote the book to accommodate US sensibilities. In the original Jefferson is named as the father of two slave girls. There is no mention of Jefferson in any of his 3 US revisions. (The historical nature of the idea that Jefferson had any children by any slave was heavily disputed until 1998.)
The book opens with a brief Preface about the nature of slavery as it was known in the 1850s as well as its history in the US. Brown also states his reason for writing the book:
If the incidents set forth in the following pages should add anything new to the information already given to the Public through similar publications, and should thereby aid in bringing British influence to bear upon American slavery, the main object for which this work was written will have been accomplished.
It’s not great literature – it has a more journalistic or documentary style. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not great literature either. I suppose they’re educational for British readers hoping to put pressure on the US.
Currer was the mistress of Thomas Jefferson and gave birth to their two light-skinned daughters, Althesa and Clotel. She is allowed to work independently, but she is still a slave. At Jefferson’s death, all three are sold into slavery. The slave seller is an opportunity for Wells to describe the situations of many slaves – beatings, separations from family, and preachers and others preaching lies.
Currer is purchased by a preacher who refuses to buy the daughters. So Clotel at age 16, and a truly beautiful one, goes to Horatio Green, a rich, white northern man. They fall in love and marry surreptitiously- it’s not legal which creates a lot of problems when Horatio gets ambitious.
Althesa on the other hand, passes for white and marries her new owner, Harry Morton, who loves her dearly but dies, whereupon she and their daughters are sold into slavery.
These are the main threads of the plot – they go on for several years with other characters and escapes and tragedies. As Wikipedia quotes one 21st century literary critic:
It is a “scathing, sarcastic, comprehensive critique of slavery in the American South, race prejudice in the American North, and religious hypocrisy in the American notion as a whole.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotel
What Wells really looks at in the guise of a novel are the themes of slavery and marriage including family break-ups, the cruelty of the owners, variations in skin-color and treatment, the political, legal, social and economic, structure of the Antebellum South in terms of slavery.
“The abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.” http://barleyliterate.blogspot.com/2014/12/book-review-clotel-or-presidents.html
Because the three heroines are all women, that aspect, the female slave, has been studied by scholars of history, literature and women’s studies.
For a more in-depth analysis see