Novel explores Thomas Jefferson’s hypocrisy regarding slavery

Shannon Beaudry, Staff Writer

“Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter” is a work of historical fiction in which William Wells Brown explores the belief that Thomas Jefferson had several illegitimate children with a slave woman. This idea has been very much debated over the years, but it is now a common belief that Jefferson had a long-term affair with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had several children with her.

Brown was born a slave in 1816, and, in 1834, escaped to the North where he became a rather well-known abolitionist. In 1853, his first novel, “Clotel,” was published. In fact, most historians agree that this was the very first novel ever published by an African American writer.

The novel focuses on a Sally Hemings-type character named Currer and her daughters, Althesea and Clotel, who were fathered by Thomas Jefferson. The setting takes place after Jefferson’s death; the women are sold at auction and separated from each other. Their separate paths are traced throughout the rest of the novel.

It is said that the struggles of the principle characters reflect the then-common motif of the “Tragic Mulatta” in which the biracial woman tries and fails to fit in with both the “whites” and the “blacks.”

The novel seems uncomfortably stereotypical, insensitive, and sensationalized at times. While Brown was a former slave, and he presented slavery in a very raw way in order to stir up abolitionist feelings, he sometimes resorted to common stereotypes about slaves themselves. There also seems to be an underlying message that the slaves and former slaves would be better off if they were just whiter.

Clotel is considered very beautiful by white men and has a long-term relationship with Horatio Green, a white man who buys her to save her from slavery. The language that Brown uses to describe her, however, shows that she is not only attractive to the characters in the book, but also to the author himself. Clotel’s light skin is idealized alongside her beauty.

Brown devotes a large amount of description to the beauty of the biracial main characters and hints around at the jealousy they invoke among the all-black slaves. Furthermore, each of the biracial women end up marrying white men.

While there were some rather fascinating parts in the novel, overall Brown’s “plot” is far too disjointed and incoherent to be a completely pleasurable read. In his apparent attempt at a sweeping epic, Brown forces the reader to jump from one character to another, none of which find themselves connected with any other character, and from random scenario to random scenario.The culprit for this disconnected feel is Brown’s blatant plagiarism. Rather than writing a brand new story, Brown simply copied from others’ works, essentially “cutting and pasting” entire works.

Since copyright laws were pretty much nonexistent during Brown’s time, he was able to get away with this plagiarism, and many celebrated it as an art form. Though this is an impressive way to approach writing a novel, he could have at least connected the dots and made it one coherent plot.

Overall, however, Brown does a good job at relating his experiences as a slave. There were parts in the novel that were chilling, and there were parts that were overwhelmingly sad.

In “Clotel,” William Wells Brown succeeds in shedding light on the hypocrisy of a government and a Declaration of Independence that championed freedom for ALL people while one of its founders, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves and subjected even his own children to the pains of enslavement.