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.
Ezra 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.”