Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Juneteenth and the First African-American Novel

portrait engraving of William Wells Brown
Today is the annual celebration of Juneteenth, a mash-up of "June Ninteenth," which marks the day that two thousand Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to promptly announce that emancipation had arrived. General Gordon Granger read aloud the following words, among others, to a crowd that had gathered to listen to his report from the federal government: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." In 1997, over a hundred and thirty years later, the United States Congress formally recognized the celebration. Just this year, Apple Computers added the day to its iOS calendars as an official US holiday.

Title page of Clotelle, 4th edition, 1867Because Texas history isn't really our forte, we don't have any documents from that historical and momentous event. However, we do have a novel that shows the dramatic impact of emancipation, reflected in revisions made to the book by its author after the close of the Civil War. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, was written by William Wells Brown and first published in London in 1853. Brown was himself a runaway slave who was living in Europe at the time; he was fairly well known in the United States because of his wildly popular autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, which was published in 1847. Brown had left the United States in 1849 to lecture in Europe about the evils of slavery, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made his return to the U.S. a risky prospect. He eventually returned to the American continent in 1854 after his freedom was purchased by wealthy benefactors in England.

Frontispiece from Clotelle, showing a room of wealthy white men seated around a table and an African-American standing on the table.Brown's Clotel, which later became Clotelle, was the first novel published by an African-American. In it, Brown relates the experiences of many African-American slaves in the United States, doubtless influenced and informed by his own life. As such, the novel changes and grows with each edition. The first American edition, printed as a dime novel in 1864, was titled Clotelle; A Tale of the Southern States. The fourth and final edition, which we have here at Rauner, was published in 1867 and is titled Clotelle; or the Colored Heroine. In the first edition, Clotel is chased through the streets of Washington D.C. by slave catchers and ultimately kills herself by jumping into the Potomac River from the Long Bridge. However, the ending to the fourth edition evinces some of the hope and joy that some of the onlookers must have felt in Galveston on June 19th upon learning of their emancipation. In the last edition of the novel, Clotelle marries her lover Jerome in the United States (instead of in France, as in previous editions) and then becomes an army nurse and travels to Andersonville Prison in Georgia to care for Union prisoners of war.

To see our edition of Clotelle, come to Rauner and ask for Rare PS1139.B9 C5 1867. To read William Wells Brown's autobiography, ask for Rare E444 .B88.

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