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February's Book
Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter
by William Wells Brown

Bill:
The first novel published by an African American, Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter, was written by Kentucky-born author William Wells Brown. This powerful portrayal brings the reader intimate and shocking details of the slave trade in the 19th century and the harsh realities of life for everyone in the 1800s. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
The publisher does an interesting thing with Clotel, I think, by putting the details of William Wells Brown’s life in the very beginning. I guess it’s open to debate and discussion whether that was in the original, but that really doesn’t make a difference. What do we know about the author that really contributes to his writing and our understanding of Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter?

Jonathan:
Well, I’m glad you brought that up, Bill, because prior to the novel actually beginning, there is a narrative of the life and escape of William Wells Brown, which, although written in the third person, is actually his memoir.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And I think that perhaps, since he is telling the story about when he had been a slave and then he escaped and then moved to England and then became quite successful in his way there in the abolitionist movement, I think that in a sense it gives out a luster or credence to the novel itself, because it’s clear then that the author is writing out of a body of experience that resembles some of the experiences described in the novel.

Bill:
Do you know of another novel or book of any sort that is written in this way, where it includes a section about the author first that would add some, as you said, credence or authenticity to what you are going to read next, which is the novel?

Jonathan:
Yes, there are.

Wilma:
I think I agree with Jonathan. It adds a great deal of credence to the story itself, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ...

Bill:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Wilma:
Thank you. [laughs]

Bill:
All right.

Wilma:
... was published just the year before.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And because she’s a white woman, there have been a great many things written [saying] but that’s not necessarily valid. But when we see that this is written in 1853, just a year after that, and we know from the very beginning that this man is not only a black man, a former slave, but many of the things that he writes about in here, the details are from his own life—that, for me, makes it much more powerful and really an astounding account, even though he has fictionalized some of it. But you know that the details are correct or they ring true and so on. So I think it’s ... I think I appreciated having his autobiographical material beforehand.

Jonathan:
It’s interesting, actually, because the novel, as a novel, as a work of fiction, is by definition fictional—imaginative—and therefore not true.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
By definition.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
But by the same token, it is describing a story which apparently does have basis in fact. And oddly enough, he says at the very end of the novel, in his conclusion—he says in the conclusion:

“I may be asked, and no doubt shall, ‘Are the various incidents and scenes related founded in truth?’ I answer, ‘Yes. I have personally participated in many of those scenes.’”

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
So on the one hand, it’s a work of fiction; but on the other hand, if he participated in them himself, then it’s a work of autobiographical snatches. And furthermore, I think it’s a kind of history book in a way, because it’s trying to tell something about the historical experience of slaves at this period in America. And also he quite obviously borrows from other people’s work and clips bits and pieces out of other people’s stories and puts them in sort of a collage effect. So it’s a wonderful mixture of things as a novel. But I think in his viewpoint, it’s a work of propaganda, among other things, and he’s tried to let the people of England, where it was first published in 1852, know what is going on in America.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And so it’s important that although it’s a work of fiction, it should be seen to be kind of a documentary as well.

Wilma:
Well, if we see it only as a novel, only as a piece of fiction, it actually is not very successful if you judge it according to literary precepts. But the fascinating thing is, because he meanders, he gets out of focus. He has characters going into long diatribes on the social problems, and all of that is highly interesting. It doesn’t work as a novel. And then he has this contrived ending. But altogether it’s absolutely fascinating because you know that the details are true and they are just horrifying.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
Excerpts from the newspapers are woven through, and like you said, he’s grabbed little bits and pieces of historical information and woven it into the story.

Bill:
Well, Dava and Gabrielle, what do we know about Clotel and the way he begins to weave this story that takes us all the way through to, of course, the conclusion?

Dava:
Well, we know that Clotel is a very beautiful daughter of a very ... “popular” is not the word, but very valued slave. Currer is a very good housekeeper. People always come to have her do their work for them, and so in a way Currer was able to have an easier time making, perhaps, a little money on the side to raise her daughters. She had Althesa and Clotel, and she could raise them in a perhaps better state than most slaves were in at the time. So they were considered two very beautiful daughters. They hadn’t done much physical labor as they grew up. And so Clotel then is sold to Horatio Green, who uses Clotel as his mistress and who is actually in love with Clotel at the onset of their time together. Clotel has a daughter named Mary by Horatio Green, but then Horatio had political ambitions, so he marries a white woman so that he can work up in his station—in his whole scheme of politics and what have you. But then Clotel falls out of favor with Horatio Green because of the new wife and just goes through all the experiences she has to have being scorned by him. That’s a big theme of this book: how first she was an object of his affection and then completely the reverse.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
In the end, of course, the tragic ending, because Clotel dies trying to see her daughter again. But there are a lot of stories woven in here, and it’s very easy to forget who the characters are and things like that. But it is very interesting because of that.

Gabrielle:
I think the implication that Clotel was the president’s daughter is kind of also the thought that carries throughout the book.

Bill:
The president—I don’t know if we’ve said it yet—of course being Thomas Jefferson. Alleged to be the child of Currer and Thomas Jefferson. And so as we go through the novel and the story of Clotel, as you mentioned a few minutes ago ... Did you use “meandering”?

Wilma:
I think that’s an excellent word. I’m sure I did.

Bill:
But there are other stories and other characters.

Wilma:
Well, even ... He gives, actually, more time to Georgiana, who is the daughter of a white slave owner; and actually for some part of it, it becomes her story. She’s very much an abolitionist, so she works in that direction in the book. But he does ... And the only tie that Georgiana has is that her father is the owner of Clotel’s mother. But William Wells Brown doesn’t develop that too much, and he finally just has Currer, the mother, die of yellow fever, simply because he hasn’t developed her and he can’t go much farther with her.

Bill:
Well, not only is Georgiana’s husband a slave owner; he is also a minister.

Wilma:
Father.

Bill:
A reverend.

Wilma:
Father.

Bill:
Or father. Which then brings ...

Wilma:
Yeah, that’s a good point.

Bill:
... or gives William Wells Brown an opportunity to bring the impact of the church and Christianity and all of that.

Wilma:
One of the best parts—I mean one of the most effective and interesting parts in the entire book—is ...

Gabrielle:
77.

Wilma:
Yes. Did you check?

Bill:
Oh, really.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
77; too good. It’s where the minister is giving the sermon to the slaves. And it is effective simply because he lets the reader see how ironic the sermon is without telling us. You know, we get to see that this minister is saying ... He uses the Bible to say that: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And he’s telling the slaves, now how would you want, if you were the owners, how would you want your slaves to act? And that’s how you ought to act. You should always be hard-working and honest and so on. Just a horribly ironic sermon. I have marked the last part of the sermon. The white minister is talking to the slaves—and they are all asleep, by the way!

“Lastly, you should serve your masters faithfully, because of their goodness to you. See to what trouble they have been on your account. Your fathers were poor ignorant and barbarous creatures in Africa, and the whites fitted out ships at great trouble and expense and brought you from the benighted land to Christian America, where you can sit under your own vine and fig tree and no one molest or make you afraid. Oh, my dear black brothers and sisters, you are indeed a fortunate and blessed people. If the banks break, your masters are sure to lose something. If the crops turn out poor, they lose by it. If one of you die, your master loses what he paid for you, while you are losing nothing. Now let me exhort you once more to be faithful.”

And it’s a horrifying sermon, and yet at the same time the author does not have to tell us that. What were you thinking on that segment? You marked the same page?

Gabrielle:
I had the same. I had marked the same page and the same paragraph.

Bill:
What does it mean to you, Gabrielle?

Gabrielle:
The book in itself was a very emotional book for me. So at times I had to put it down. So I actually liked the woven pieces of it because it gave me a break at times, to get away from some of the atrocities that were happening. I tend to bring the characters alive in my mind and try to think of how they would feel, so it was difficult at various points when I would hear families being separated or someone being sold in a card game. That was tough. But then when he did things like this, or you would celebrate the victories of slaves escaping, that really kind of helped balance out some of the sadness and despair that you read in it.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Bill:
How do you think the slaves, even the free men and women, in their own minds could accept a God, a church, the spirituals, and yet here, on the other hand, another minister or a church—being sort of preached to them in a way that they were still subservient? I mean, to me that was such a paradox or a contradiction in really what they all believed in.

Jonathan:
Well, they didn’t all believe it. I mean, there is that wonderful conversation after that heinous and disgusting sermon when one black woman says to the other, “They made such a great big book and put nothing in it but servants obey your masters.”

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
There is more in the Bible than that, only Snyder—that’s the sermonizer—never reads any other parts to us. I used to hear it read in Maryland, and there was more than what Snyder lets us hear. And it’s so poignant. And it’s humorous in a book that on the whole is not humorous. And I should say that this is not unlike many other books we’ve read. I think the correct response to this is one of repugnance and disgust. And you know, I think it’s important to remember how you felt when you first read it as we talk here with great jocularity about it, because some of these scenes are just so harrowing, and it just reminds you what the whole institution of slavery was and what it meant day to day for countless thousands of people: a complete dehumanization of people that our culture perhaps associates more with Hitler’s Germany than with anything else. I mean, everything you saw at Auschwitz and Belsen is the sort of thing that happens in this book, and it happened in this book. For instance, the getting a whole lot of sick African Americans and killing them in order to dissect them for medical experiments. That’s straight out of Hitler’s Germany.

Bill:
And at the time ...

Jonathan:
So I mean, in a sense, while I am talking about this, my head is a little bit swimming because it’s kind of overwhelming—just scene after scene of morally repugnant barbarity that was nonetheless supported by all our churches. And there is that wonderful scene of the auction, and then Brown has this to say. He says:

“This was a Southern auction, at which the bones, muscles, and sinews, bloods and nerves of a young lady of sixteen were sold for five hundred dollars,” and so on and so forth. “And this, too, in a city thronged with churches, whose tall spires looked like so many signals pointing to heaven, and whose ministers preached that slavery is a God-ordained institution!”

You know, it’s just horrifying how a society can convince itself of a certain thing, isn’t it?

Dava:
Well, I think William Wells Brown does make a point to unveil this horrifying attitude that the church had, but he also, I think, uses Georgiana as an example of how Christianity should be. And I think it’s very telling that maybe he’s not trying to just completely write off this religion. I mean, in the character of Georgiana he is saying, “This is how it should be. This is how you should ...”

Jonathan:
Yeah, using her ...

Bill:
... as an abolitionist.

Wilma:
And she is religious.

Dava:
Yeah, she is very religious.

Jonathan:
He is not criticizing ...

Dava:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
... Christianity. He is criticizing its practitioners who are able to live with this level of hypocrisy and not see it. So they had Georgiana. She is a wonderful character; she’s a moral touchstone.

Wilma:
And I think that works. Sometimes he puts these long speeches in the voices of the characters. I think it works for Georgiana, because we understand her character better, and also it makes the novel move forward. You know, there is a point to it. In direct contrast: when Clotel is on the stagecoach and just one of the people on the stagecoach gives this long speech about temperance. Well, that’s just, like, thrown in.; it’s not part of the novel. But I think it feels right in Georgiana’s voice. Do you agree with me on that?

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
And William Wells Brown, of course, writes from some authenticity, too, because he was ... Remind me again: He worked for a slave trader. Is that right? So he had the experience of being nearby sort of overseeing or helping the trader, and so he had been to many of those sales.

Jonathan:
Because he is very good at describing ... In auctions, he is very good at describing the character whose job it is to blacken gray hair ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... and shave and tell people that you may actually be 45, but for this auction you are 35. And I mean, I presume there was a character like that who prepared the people to go on sale.

Bill:
In fact, he did it himself.

Jonathan:
He did it himself.

Bill:
Yes. Right.

Jonathan:
So. So I mean, like, he’s got such a ring of authenticity.

Dava:
Right, and he talks about many aspects of slavery you might not ever have thought of. I really like it when he talks about how on the riverboat ... You were talking about how when white slave owners would gamble, a slave would switch masters maybe three or four times, maybe just during a trip, because their master would lose them in the game of poker.

Wilma:
Right.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Dava:
I never even thought of that, but that’s just so wild. It happened all the time, you know. I just never even thought of that.

Wilma:
And then the point that sometimes they were hired out; slaves were hired out to other people. And he said that because slaves were considered property, the owners took better care of them than the people that hired them out, simply because they just saw them as somebody to work. And I thought that was horrifying, too. And something I hadn’t thought about before.

Bill:
What do we know from the novel about how other slaves or blacks treated or saw Clotel and the other lighter-skinned African Americans or mulattos? They went by other names, too. Do we get some hint of the relationship that they had?

Gabrielle:
I think it’s even existent today, but usually the light-skinned slaves were allowed to work in the house, where the darker ones were considered field hands. So already that created a tension between the group because it was more prestigious to be inside the house instead of underneath the hot sun per se, or something like that. So you were right about the tensions between the two. And then you also saw it from another side. The slaves that could pass as white were also challenged with, OK, now I can pass for white, but I’m not accepted by my fellow slaves, so to speak, in the place that I reside, and at the same time I am not accepted by white society. So you saw those struggles.

Wilma:
Did you think the author was conflicted on that? Because all of his heroines are the light-skinned, straight-hair ... Do you understand what I am saying? Did you feel that?

Bill:
Instead of having a protagonist who could not become free or work out of their plight, I see. That’s a good question.

Wilma:
And including the men, too. I mean, even at the end, George is actually blond-headed. I mean, he’s not only light-skinned, but he’s actually Nordic. You know: He’s blond-headed and blue-eyed. So did you feel that, too?

Gabrielle:
It could have been some of his personal bias kind of shading that, because there is that perception that the light-skinned have more opportunities and are more likely to succeed than those that are not, especially when they are trying to escape. So that kind of played into it. I thought about that, too.

Jonathan:
Yeah, I think actually William Wells Brown is in love with Clotel.

Wilma:
Uh huh. [laughs]

Jonathan:
I mean, she is his character.

Wilma:
Yeah, you are right.

Jonathan:
He describes her almost sensuously, longingly, lovingly in every case. She’s a heroine; she’s a protagonist. But she ... You don’t get a very strong sense of what she is like, do you?

Wilma:
No, you don’t.

Jonathan:
She’s not really a strong person, but ... She is not really a strong character in terms of what she gives to you, the reader.

Wilma:
Her strongest thing ...

Jonathan:
She is beautiful, and she is strong and erect and dignified, but you know ...

Wilma:
Her strongest scene is her suicide, her death. I mean, that’s a real scene.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
It shows her character. But I agree with Jonathan that before—especially when she was married to or with Horatio Green—she was just this kind of symbol in this house or something. I didn’t really get an idea of who she was.

Dava:
Well, I think maybe William Wells Brown wrote about lighter-skinned slaves because it also gave him the opportunity to talk about the social stratification amongst the slaves themselves.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Dava:
And how if you were a lighter-skinned slave, you were not liked by either your masters—well, some of your masters—or you weren’t liked by darker slaves because you had the opportunity to pass for white, and they would treat them more harshly. It says about George—who, as you were talking about, was a very fair-skinned and blond-haired slave:

“George was as white as most white persons. No one would suppose that any African blood coursed through his veins. His hair was straight, soft, fine, and light; his eyes blue, nose prominent, lips thin, his head well formed, forehead high and prominent; and he was often taken for a free white person by those who did not know him. This made his condition still more intolerable; for one so white seldom ever receives fair treatment at the hands of his fellow slaves; and the whites usually regard such slaves as persons who, if not often flogged, and otherwise ill-treated, to remind them of their condition, would soon ‘forget’ that they were slaves, and ‘think themselves as good as white folks.’”

So he ... It gives him ample opportunity to address that situation also.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
Well, once again I want to refer to our KET web site and the bookclub web site. Our bookclub web maven, Chela Kaplan, has done a wonderful job if our viewers and listeners want to go farther in exploring so much more about this work and others. Let’s talk just a minute about William Wells Brown himself, because that’s what we get in the very first of the book. You don’t call that part of it a novel, do you, Jonathan? I’m still a little conflicted about the terms there. But what do we know about him and how he grew as a young man—learning to read and write, for example?

Wilma:
One thing in that beginning—and I am not answering your question. I’m aware of that, and I will.

Bill:
Well, you will.

Wilma:
One thing about the beginning, and it’s what Gabrielle was saying. I had to put it down because I knew that was not fictionalized. It was real when he talked about babies being torn from their mothers’ arms. That was just so overwhelming, and that’s what was from his own life.

Bill:
That horrific journey that he made through ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Bill:
... hiding out for days ...

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
... and being so frightened and so afraid until this Quaker gentleman came along. And of course he adopted his name. I mean, that’s where he got his name. He was only William to that point.

Wilma:
Somewhat in answer to your question, I think it’s astounding that this man who was born a slave was able not only to escape, which is amazing to begin with, but then to educate himself and then to go to Europe and become, apparently, a very effective lecturer, if we are to believe him, and also an author.

Bill:
It is—again, on the web site—authenticated in several places that he was very well accepted. I think he had a position there. And, of course, he chose to also come back to America, to the same problems that he left before. But we know that he was born in Lexington, Kentucky; that he, apparently not until his late teens/early 20s did he really learn—during the time that he spent with the Quaker family—by bribing the little boys with sugarcane, wasn’t it?

Gabrielle:
Sugarcane.

Bill:
... to bring him books and help him and teach him to read and write, and that nice passage where he wrote on a picket fence ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
As long as the ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
... fence would go. Just writing his name and words. And now this, this man, this slave, and then a free man, this traveler, this European—what am I saying there? Bon vivant—that’s not the way you pronounce that.

Wilma:
It’s a nice word.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
... but became, then, this learned gentleman who then puts together Clotel as well as so many other writings which are also included. So quite a unique story—not only the novel itself, but about the author.

Wilma:
I think people should read this. I hope people will take the time to find it, because it’s very alarming. I mean, I think we know some of these things, of course, but to have so much detail in this book ... I think it’s a good book for people to read.

Jonathan:
And it’s not just one story. It’s really the story about a lot of fugitives.

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
A lot of different fugitives.

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
And you know, the point about social stratification: It really does show the complexity of black-white relations at the time. You had so many children who were born of white fathers and black mothers, and they then had children, and even though a white man married a mulatto woman, as she is called, I suppose her children—his children—would still be slaves unless money had been paid. And there was that harrowing scene where ...

Bill:
Oh yeah.

Jonathan:
... where George, not Horatio, and his wife die of scarlet fever and then the children are arrested as slaves.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And yet they’d had this very privileged upbringing. Not that that is a reason for giving them freedom, but what I mean is, it just ... The whole ground could be taken out from underneath you.

Bill:
I think that’s also underlined in the passage, again, in the beginning—“Life and Escape”—when William Wells Brown was trying to secure his freedom, and at first the money paid was going to be ... Correct me if I’m wrong here, but didn’t it start out at 350 or so? And then it was raised. Every time that he wanted to return, the fee went up again. And there was that, so, you know ... just such a disturbing time.

Jonathan:
Of course “passing” and passing for white, if you are of black extraction, is a big theme in literature, in African-American literature. I was thinking of the memoir that we read a couple of years back.

[Everyone agrees]

Jonathan:
Passing for Black, yes. Normally you would say “passing for white,” but she was passing for black because she had grown up ... And she was filled with this kind of sense of division, wasn’t she? ...

 

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