In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Wells Brown

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Brown and Other Writers
  • Teaching

American Literature William Wells Brown
John Ernest
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0058


Born in Kentucky, probably in 1814, William Wells Brown was, in a long and active career, among other things, an antislavery lecturer and conductor of the Underground Railroad; a tireless advocate for the temperance cause; a barber; a medical doctor of questionable expertise; an author of poems, novels, autobiographies, travel narratives, and historical studies; and one of Frederick Douglass’s rivals for preeminence in the field of 19th-century black male leadership. Having escaped from slavery, Brown soon became active in the temperance movement, and active as well in helping fellow fugitive slaves escape to relative freedom—but Brown’s future was influenced particularly by his attendance at the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo in 1843, at which meeting he met the great antislavery leader Frederick Douglass. By the end of that year, Brown was an agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, and, in 1844, Brown presented his first significant antislavery speech at the tenth anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1847 Brown, now estranged from his wife, moved to Boston and became a lecturing agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. There he published his Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, a book that helped to establish him as an increasingly important leader in the antislavery movement. In the years that followed, Brown traveled extensively, both in the United States and abroad, and published in virtually every literary genre—fiction, autobiography, poetry, drama, history, and travel—in addition to writing for numerous newspapers in the United States and Great Britain and publishing orations from his long career as a professional lecturer on various subjects. But even though Brown has long been recognized for his pioneering work—as one of the first African American novelists, playwrights, travel writers, and historians—critical recognition of and appreciation for his achievements was somewhat slow in coming. Although the historical importance of his publications has long been acknowledged, early commentary on his work ranged from critical to dismissive. But with the development of African American literary scholarship from the 1970s onward, and with new and prominently published anthologies and reference works in the 1990s, Brown’s fortunes slowly rose. Today, he is appreciated nearly as much as a historian, playwright, and travel writer as he is as the author of Clotel.

Reference Works

Although Brown appears in a great number of reference books concerning African American history and literature, some of the information one encounters in those sources is of questionable accuracy, and much of it simply repeats what one encounters in other sources. Only two bibliographies are of deep and ongoing value—Ellison 1976 for 19th-century notices of Brown and American Literary Scholarship for recent and contemporary scholarship. Among the reference works, the best biographical treatments are in Gates and Higginbotham 2008 and Harris and Davis 1986. Other sources—Bain and Flora 1987, Leeman 1996, and Peterson 1990—focus on specific aspects of Brown’s career, and thus highlight information that other sources might not offer in depth. The sources collected in Ripley 1985–1992 (including some of Brown’s writings) allow scholars to follow Brown’s dynamic exchanges with his contemporaries.

  • American Literary Scholarship: An Annual. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1963–.

    Published by the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, this is the best continuing source for finding recent scholarship on Brown, beginning with the 1968 volume.

  • Bain, Robert, and Joseph M. Flora, eds. Fifty Southern Writers before 1900: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1987.

    Although dated and general, still a useful source, especially for those tracking the early reception of Brown. Includes an informed and sophisticated understanding of Brown’s major themes and compositional methods.

  • Ellison, Curtis W. William Wells Brown and Martin R. Delany: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976.

    The single best source for finding writings about Brown published between 1844 and 1975. Basic in its annotations, but useful in its historical range and in its depth of coverage.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American National Biography. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    The best biographical guide to African American lives. Valuable in part because the reasonably full entry on Brown can be contextualized by entries on Brown’s most important contemporaries. One can accordingly piece together a network of influences, organizations, and important affiliations.

  • Harris, Trudier, and Thadious M. Davis, eds. Afro-American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 50. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.

    One of the better early reference sources on Brown. Includes a reasonably full and balanced biographical entry, a full list of his works, and an overview of sites that contain small collections of his papers.

  • Leeman, Richard W., ed. African-American Orators: A Bio-critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.

    Though brief and somewhat dated, useful source in that it focuses specifically on Brown’s work as orator. Identifies events and influences important to Brown’s speaking career.

  • Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers: A Biographical Directory and Catalog of Plays, Films, and Broadcasting Scripts. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

    Very brief, basic, and somewhat dated source, but still useful for those interested in background, plots, and public presentation details of Brown’s dramatic work.

  • Ripley, C. Peter, ed. The Black Abolitionist Papers. 5 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985–1992.

    This five-volume collection is drawn from the extensive archive of the same name, available online by subscription, is the best and most widely accessible record of letters, speeches, and other documents by and about black abolitionists. Includes a number of writings by Brown.

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