An Innovative Slave Narrative Affects Popular Culture

Andrea Frankwitz

William Wells Brown, one of the country’s first African American writers to publish a variety of creative works, was also a slave. As part of her ongoing scholarship on slave narratives, Andrea Frankwitz, associate professor of English, will present on Brown’s literary contributions at the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., March 27-30, 2013.

Here’s Frankwitz’s abstract of her talk, “Mastering the Picaro: Rhetorical Reversals in the Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave”:

“Notable for being the first African American to publish a novel, a play, a travel narrative, and a history of black soldiers, William Wells Brown rose to prominence while still legally a slave, having become a popular speaker in the abolitionist circuit.  What naturally followed from this was the publication of his own slave account, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Written By Himself (1847).  Though by this point in time, the slave narrative genre had further developed from its Middle Passage and action-oriented beginnings in the eighteenth-century to then, in the midst of the Romantic era, a more thoughtful and introspective first-person story, Brown may almost appear to have reversed course.  Departing a bit from the prototypically autobiographical story of enslavement that Douglass provides, Brown, instead, seems novelistic in approach.   Despite its being a best seller in its day, Brown’s Narrative now receives far less critical attention than his novel, Clotel.  It may well be, though, that Brown’s innovations in his slave narrative have resulted in critics’ being confused about its genre classification, seeing it as having an identity crisis of sorts.  

“While, admittedly, his story seems far less autobiographical than that of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs, Brown may well have sought to complicate his rendition of the slave narrative. In Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Brown draws upon but re-appropriates the picaresque tradition to rewrite the master’s property book, thus rhetorically repositioning himself and his former slave-owner(s) and inverting their power relations.”

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