William Wells Brown, the first ever African American to publish a novel in 1853

Nduta Waweru July 06, 2018

After the slave narratives gained prominence in the 1840s, William Wells Brown published a novel in 1853, becoming the first ever African American to do so.

Brown was born circa 1814 to an enslaved black woman and a white slave owner in Lexington, Kentucky. His father, George W Higgins, was the cousin of his mother’s master, Dr John Young and had even acknowledged Brown as his son. Although Higgins made Young promise not to sell Brown and his mother, Young did not keep the promise. He sold the two, and eventually Brown ended up in St. Louis, Missouri.

William Wells Brown, the first ever African American to publish a novel in 1853

William Wells Brown in the 1850s. CreditHulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1834 when he was 20 years old, Brown escaped from his master and was rescued by the Wells Browns, a Quaker family whose names Brown adopted due to the help they had afforded him.  Under the Wells Brown family, Brown learnt how to read and write. He read voraciously to make up for what he had missed when he was growing up.

He also got married to a freedwoman called Elizabeth Schooner and had two daughters, Clarissa and Josephine. The two separated and Brown got married again when he was 44 to Anna Elizabeth Gray.

Between 1936 to 1945, Brown worked as a steamboat man on Lake Erie and later as a conductor of the Underground Rail.

He had also started speaking about his experience in Western New York Anti-Slavery Society as well as lecturing on behalf of women’s rights and temperance law.  This marked a turning point in his life.

After the resounding success of Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself, Brown published his own slave narrative called the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself. The success of his own book saw him travel across Europe lecturing and delivering speeches.

He later wrote the novel,  Clotel, which was published in 1953 in the UK, making him the first ever African American to publish a novel. It is however not the first novel by an African American published in the U.S. This honour goes to  Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, published in 1959.

William Wells Brown, the first ever African American to publish a novel in 1853

The year before, he had become the first African American to write a travel book called Three Years in Europe. 

Brown also became the first published African-American playwright for his The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom in 1958.

Due to the fear of recapture even in free states in America after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Brown stayed abroad until his freedom was bought by the Richardson family of Britain in 1854. He then moved back to America and continued with his abolitionist activities and even supported the African-American emigration to Haiti.

He continued writing until his death on November 6, 1884, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was 70 years old.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: July 6, 2018


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates