Review: Clotel, or the President’s Daughter

Clotel, or the President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown

So I’ve hit the ceiling on how many English classes I can take at my college. I guess they really are serious about that well-rounded liberal arts education! I’m tentatively sticking my toes in other disciplines—Latin among them, because I want to prove to myself that I’m not actually that bad at languages and because I listened to too much Eddie Izzard as a child—but I’m lucky enough to be able to take an Africana Studies class focused on the African-American novel to keep my critical teeth sharp. Of course, it’s not an English class as I know it, and I’m eager to see what’ll come of it.

Clotel, or the President’s Daughter is widely considered to be the first novel published by an African-American, William Wells Brown. The novel focuses on the life of Currer, a slave of Thomas Jefferson who has two daughters by him: Althesa and Clotel, who can almost pass as white. While Currer and her daughters live a relatively comfortable life, after Jefferson’s death, they are sold, and the novel follows them through their respective fates, as well as those of a handful of other slaves they meet along the way.

You can’t really approach Clotel as a novel; it’s fragmented, can’t decide on a protagonist, and the tone is, well, preachy. But that’s Brown’s point: to try and damage the awful institution of slavery via relating these facts and true stories about it. Besides fictionalizing the story of Sally Hemmings and calling Jefferson out on owning and selling his own flesh and blood (I was expecting Brown to invent a president, to be wholly honest, but that doesn’t fit with his method of attack), he also pulls newspaper articles and other anecdotes. One such anecdote discusses how an exception was made for an interracial marriage in New Orleans because the mixed wife was so rich; another, the story of Ellen and William Craft, is incorporated into Clotel’s escape to freedom. The novel is sometimes called propaganda, and it’s true: Brown’s point was to appeal to a British audience (who had abolished slavery twenty years earlier) mostly composed of the white women who made up the abolitionist movement.

In fact, there’s some interesting intersectionality between feminism and abolition, which my class is going to get into. I very much look forward to it. Brown’s protagonists are all women, of course, and both Clotel and Althesa end up marrying their new masters. While Althesa’s master legally marries her, Clotel’s does not, and it is Clotel who ends up, despite her master husband’s vows of love, being cast aside because his political ambitions require him to marry a white woman. There’s an argument here that man and wife should be on equal footing for a marriage to truly work. Even the marriage of Althesa, which is a happy one, leaves behind consequences for the next generation—her daughters, who can and do pass as white, end up being sold into slavery when their heritage is discovered. In fact, the only successful marriage in the entire novel is that of Mary and George, Clotel’s daughter and her fellow escaped slave, and that’s only successful because it happens in free England, not enslaved America.

Of course, Brown’s depiction of women isn’t perfect—one can clearly see that his choice of virtuous and beautiful slave women who can pass as white is intended to appeal to his audience on a sentimental level. There’s plenty of talk about the natural state of the African, and even a weird moment where it’s argued that the addition of Anglo-Saxon blood to African blood has resulted in a desire for freedom, instead of the inherent human dignity in every person. In class, we talked about whether or not this is Brown attempting to appeal to his audience, Brown regurgitating stereotypes from his own life, or Brown nodding to the fictional slave narratives that have come before him, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “The Quadroons”. But what sets Brown apart is that, by being the first African-American to publish a novel, he has set the stage for other narratives actually coming from the African-American perspective, instead of being put forth by white abolitionists.

Bottom line: Clotel, the first novel published by an African-American, isn’t so much a novel as a damning, fictionalized account of slavery, calculated to play on the sentiments of the white female abolitionists that made up William Wells Brown’s audience. Historically interesting, less so literarily.

I downloaded this free e-book from the Kindle Store.

9 thoughts on “Review: Clotel, or the President’s Daughter

  1. This is interesting — I’d never heard of it. I wonder why it isn’t more widely know when Uncle Tom’s Cabin got so much press and continues to be treated as a “classic?”

    • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, besides being written by a white woman, is much more of a typical novel than Clotel and even Iola Leroy, the next novel on my syllabus. That might be why, although I’m sure there’s much bigger factors involved.

  2. I recently studied abolition in England, and it was fascinating to read about, especially as we ended up learning and discussing how freed slaves came into it as witnesses and in propaganda. As such I’d love to read this book, which I’m surprised not to have heard of considering. Great review!

  3. You’ve found a loophole. Though your English classes may be limited, at least you’re still studying language (and Latin at that! — stick with it, you’re in for a treat once you get to read Virgil and Petronius and the rest in their original, I know from experience), which is a roundabout way of studying more literature. And Clotel, despite its lack of literary merits, is still a novel. Why not force you into physics or something if they truly want to tear you away from your books?

    • I don’t know if I’ll be sticking with Latin for long, as I plan on tackling French once out of school (being the only person in your family who doesn’t speak French is not fun). Still, I love it!

      Well, in a sense, they’ve tried, but I’ve already taken all of my required classes outside my discipline. I’m just trying to space out credits so they don’t force me to graduate early!

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