Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”

 


William Wells Brown bio will reveal he wasn’t born in Lexington

February 19, 2013

“I was born in Lexington, Ky.”

That is the first sentence of the first chapter of the first manuscript published by William Wells Brown, the first and most prolific black writer published in the 19th century. And it appears to be wrong.

Rather than being born in Lexington — as Brown might have believed when he wrote the 1847 narrative of his life in and escape from slavery — he was born on a Montgomery County farm near Mount Sterling.

That is one of several discoveries Ezra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has made as he has researched and written the first comprehensive biography of Brown.

Greenspan is now finishing the book, which he said W.W. Norton & Co. will publish in 2014. Also next year, The Library of America will publish the second volume of Brown’s writings that Greenspan has edited. William Wells Brown: A Reader was published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008.

“He is one of the great lives in American history,” Greenspan said of Brown. “He is being recognized now, and it’s long overdue, as being the leading force in 19th-century African-American culture.”

After escaping from slavery in 1834, Brown helped other fugitive slaves get to Canada. He taught himself to read and write, became a leading anti-slavery speaker and then launched into an impressive literary career.

Brown wrote the first published black novel, play, travelogue and song book. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first examining black service in the Civil War. He later traveled widely to advocate for temperance, education and social improvement of the black community.

Brown’s most famous book was his novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, which created a sensation when published in London in 1853. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book’s inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson’s now-proven relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings.

Greenspan’s research included visiting places across America and Britain where Brown lived and worked. He came to Lexington last fall looking for evidence of Brown’s birth and owner, physician John Young. He found none.

Then, in an old copy of the Kentucky Gazette, he found a notice Young had placed telling of a smallpox epidemic in Mount Sterling. So he went to search Montgomery County court records “and Dr. John Young was all over the place.”

Greenspan also found records about the man Brown identified in his 1847 narrative as his biological father, Young’s cousin George W. Higgins, who married soon afterward and moved to Alabama.

Brown left Kentucky about age 3, when Young moved West to Missouri, settling on a large farm 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Greenspan found a lot of information about the white side of Brown’s family, but his slave ancestry remains sketchy — both in where his mother’s people came from and where they ended up. Brown’s beloved sister was sold South as a teenager, likely as part of the sex trade. His mother also was sold South, after a 17-year-old Brown persuaded her to make an unsuccessful escape attempt with him.

“Brown certainly had a sense of himself as a Kentuckian, even though the connections were loose,” Greenspan said.

He said his book would add a lot of information to what has been known about Brown and his work. But many aspects of Brown’s tumultuous private life, which included two wives and several daughters, will remain a mystery. Brown died in 1884 in Chelsea, Mass.

“Even though Brown was the most prolific black writer of the century, there are no private letters that have survived of Brown and his own family,” he said. “But the family was explosive.”

For Brown to rise from slavery, educate himself and accomplish so much is truly remarkable, Greenspan said.

“He was a person of extraordinary intelligence and perception,” he said. “Basically, it’s a story of native qualities and astounding life experience.”

Because next year will be the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan hopes states and cities where he lived will organize commemorations. He hopes to return to speak next year in Lexington, where last fall he happened upon the new William Wells Brown Elementary School in the East End.

“I was so impressed by the way they set up the community center and the school together,” he said. “It’s exactly in the mold of Brown’s reform activities: education and community reform go hand-in-hand.”