‘Clotel’: The Life Cycle of a Great American Novel

William Wells BrownGreat books have their lives as surely as do their authors. Sometimes they correspond; sometimes not. Which one has the stranger life is often unpredictable.

Take Walt Whitman and his “unkillable work,” Leaves of Grass. It had multiple nineteenth-century lives, as Whitman brought out edition after edition in attempting to give the fullest possible depiction of modern American life. None, however, gained much traction with the general public until well into the twentieth century. Nor did Whitman, America’s self-proclaimed national poet. Or take Herman Melville, who complained to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851 that he would go down to posterity as “a man who lived among the cannibals” as the author of the popular South Sea adventure story, Typee. Melville’s guess wasn’t far off. His name was linked to Typee during his lifetime, and the novel he was then pouring his heart and soul into, Moby-Dick, got little attention for its first 60 years.

But for even greater strangeness, take William Wells Brown and his once unknown, now canonized, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. Brown wrote the novel in 1852-53 while living in London as a fugitive slave. Too well known to dare to return home to Boston while the Fugitive Slave Law was in effect, he published it with a mainstream London publisher that marketed it solely in the British Isles. In all likelihood, the only copies to reach the U.S. at the time, like the inscribed copy for abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, were gifts Brown posted to friends and editors. Not until 1969, well into the Civil Rights movement, did the novel get its initial publication in this country, although it took several more decades before it began to take hold with the general public.

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