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  • Clotel
  • Written by William W. Brown
    Introduction by Hilton Als
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780679783237
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Written by William W. BrownAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by William W. Brown
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On Sale: July 16, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41927-9
Published by : Modern Library Random House Group
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The first novel published by an African American, Clotel takes up the story, in circulation at the time, that Thomas Jefferson fathered an illegitimate mulatto daughter who was sold into slavery. Powerfully reimagining this story, and weaving together a variety of contemporary source materials, Brown fills the novel with daring escapes and encounters, as well as searing depictions of the American slave trade. An innovative and challenging work of literary invention, Clotel is receiving much renewed attention today.

William Wells Brown, though born into slavery, escaped to become one of the most prominent reformers of the nineteenth century and one of the earliest historians of the black experience. This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition reproduces the first, 1853, edition of Clotel and includes, as did that edition, his autobiographical narrative, "The Life and Escape of William Wells Brown," plus newly written notes.


The Negro Sale.

"Why stands she near the auction stand,
That girl so young and fair?
What brings her to this dismal place,
Why stands she weeping there?"

With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America,
there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are
slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man
who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a
slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted
that the abolition of Negro slavery would be brought about by the
amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of
Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of
his native state, that "the blood of the first American statesmen coursed
through the veins of the slave of the South." In all the cities and towns
of the slave states, the real Negro, or clear black, does not amount to
more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of
itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the
relation of master and slave in the United States of America.

In all the slave states, the law says:?"Slaves shall be deemed, sold
[held], taken, reputed, and adjudged in law to be chattels personal in the
hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators
and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever. A
slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master
may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labour. He can
do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to
his master. The slave is entirely subject to the will of his master, who
may correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigour, or so as to
maim and mutilate him, or expose him to the danger of loss of life, or to
cause his death. The slave, to remain a slave, must be sensible that there
is no appeal from his master." Where the slave is placed by law entirely
under the control of the man who claims him, body and soul, as property,
what else could be expected than the most depraved social condition? The
marriage relation, the oldest and most sacred institution given to man by
his Creator, is unknown and unrecognised in the slave laws of the United
States. Would that we could say, that the moral and religious teaching in
the slave states were better than the laws; but, alas! we cannot. A few
years since, some slaveholders became a little uneasy in their minds about
the rightfulness of permitting slaves to take to themselves husbands and
wives, while they still had others living, and applied to their religious
teachers for advice; and the following will show how this grave and
important subject was treated:?

"Is a servant, whose husband or wife has been sold by his or her master
into a distant country, to be permitted to marry again?"

The query was referred to a committee, who made the following report;
which, after discussion, was adopted:?

"That, in view of the circumstances in which servants in this country are
placed, the committee are unanimous in the opinion, that it is better to
permit servants thus circumstanced to take another husband or wife."


"A remarkable beginning for African-American fiction."
--Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. As William Wells Brown himself notes, Clotel is a text that freely borrows from and conjoins other texts, including Lydia Marie Child's "The Quadroon" (1842) and Brown's own writings. As he writes in his "Conclusion," "To Ms. Child I am indebted for part of a short story. Abolitionist journals are another source from whence some of the characters appearing in my narrative are taken. All these combined have made up my story." What do you think of Brown's technique of assembling and reassembling, of appropriation, recombination, and recontextualization?

2. Clotel is the first novel written by an African American. What legacy or influence do you think it has had on subsequent work? Can you think of more recent novels that you can compare in some way to Clotel?

3. The story that Thomas Jefferson's illegitimate mulatto daughter had been sold into slavery was current during Brown's life. Why do you think he made use of this story as the central motif of Clotel? How does Jefferson's own intellectual biography-he was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, among other things-play into the novel?

4. Brown's own narrative, which forms the first part of Clotel, works, in the words of Robert Stepto, as "a rhetorical device, authenticating [Brown's] access to the incidents, characters, scenes, and tales, which collectively make up Clotel." What is your response to this narrative strategy? How do you think it affects the subsequent narrative?

5. How does the knowledge that Brown, an escaped slave, the first black novelist and playwright in America, and a prominent and important man of letters and abolitionist, inform your reading of Clotel? Would your reaction to it be different had it been written by, say, a white abolitionist?

6. Arna Bontemps quotes Saunders Redding as characterizing Brown as someone who reflected "the temper and the opinion of the Negro in those years . . . the most representative Negro of the age." Judging from Clotel and any other writings of the period you are familiar with, discuss in what ways Brown seems to be "representative."

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