A Tangled Text: William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853, 1860, 1864, 1867)

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-04-14 00:57Z by Steven

A Tangled Text: William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853, 1860, 1864, 1867)

Wesleyan University
April 2009
104 pages

Samantha Marie Sommers

A thesis submitted to the faculty of Wesleyan University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Departmental Honors in English and the American Studies Program

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • A Canonical Misfire: The Trouble With “Firstness” for Brown and Clotel
  • Capturing the Process: Clotel Makes [Its Own] Literary History
  • A Close Reading of a Tangled Text
  • Considering the Object: Reading Four Paratexts
    • Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States
    • Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter
    • Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon
    • Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited and Consulted


In 1853 William Wells Brown published Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter. This was the first of the four editions that comprise the first novel published by an African American writer. The story was based upon the popular rumor that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children with his slave mistress. Clotel follows the story of Jefferson’s lover Currer, their daughters, Clotel and Althesa, and their granddaughter, Mary, as these biracial characters live through and escape from slavery. This first Clotel was a hardcover edition published in London. From December 1860 to March 1861, a reconceived Clotel was published in Thomas Hamilton’s New York City newspaper The Weekly Anglo-African under a new title: Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon. Much of the documentary style of the first edition was lost as Brown removed the numerous advertisements, newspaper accounts, poems, and other extra-narrative material contained in the 1853 Clotel. Importantly, Brown erases all references to Jefferson in this and the subsequent American volumes. In 1864 Clotel was again repackaged, this time for the American Civil War. Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States was sold as part of James Redpath’s dime-novel series, “Books for the Camp Fires.” The text of this edition was nearly identical to Miralda, aside from several changes in characters’ names (including that of the eponymous heroine). Redpath directed the repackaging of the text, and he marketed the narrative as entertainment for the Union troops and their sympathizers. In 1867 Brown published Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine, a final version of the novel, as an American hardcover edition with new chapters that offered an updated ending for the post-bellum audience. My view of the four editions as components of a larger Clotel project takes the study of Clotel in a new direction, examining the novel as a dynamic text captured in four volumes. Traditionally, the four editions have been viewed as a sequence that measures either Brown’s political softening in response to the demands of the American literary market, or Clotel’s movement away from the obscurity of its fragmented style toward the conventions of nineteenth-century domestic fiction.

I view the four Clotels as a tangled text that necessitates a relational reading across the editions. The task of my thesis is to demonstrate the efficacy of this method of reading by exploring the different historical and political factors that motivate each edition, addressing the disparities in the readerly experience of the four texts, and tracking the movement from one print form to another. Even in the most recent work on William Wells Brown, scholars persist with their provisional treatment of the three later editions of Clotel; most egregiously, Miralda is all but disregarded in any discussion of Clotel. My approach attempts to correct this partial view of the novel. Throughout this thesis I will distinguish the four editions by year (the 1853 Clotel, 1860 Clotel, 1864 Clotel, and 1867 Clotel) or by name (Clotel, Miralda, the Redpath Clotelle, and the 1867 Clotelle.) These two naming systems reflect the connection of the editions to one another as well as the distinctiveness of each volume. By referring to the collective work as the four Clotels I wish to emphasize my view that the editions are four parts of a single project.

I first encountered the four editions of Clotel in the fall of 2007. I read the 2004 Penguin edition for my American Studies junior colloquium: Literary Studies as American Studies with Professor Charles Baraw. This edition, edited by Maria Giulia Fabi, includes three appendices that reprint the endings from each subsequent edition of Clotel. In her notes, Fabi explains important aspects of the changes across the volumes including characters’ names, the serialization of Miralda, and the deletion of certain politically critical passages from the American editions. My interest in the four editions stemmed from a curiosity about the implications of transferring a single story across three distinct print formats: the book, the newspaper, and the pamphlet. Because I came to the text with a personal interest in book design and production, I wanted to consider the effect of the design of these versions on the reception of their changing narratives. I sensed an inherent paradox in the story of four discrete objects transmitting one author’s evolving narrative in a moment of perhaps the most profound transition in national ideology. In my final paper for the course, I argued that the close readings of (what I now know to be) the “paratexts” for the four Clotels offered a powerful literary and cultural critique of the novel and its place in nineteenth century publishing. Retrospectively, I see my first encounter with the four Clotels in a single paperback edition as an impetus for my questioning the inherent connection of the later editions to the 1853 edition. Even the perfunctory representation of the American editions in the 2004 Clotel encapsulates the trouble of their minority status in contemporary scholarship, that motivates much of the work in this thesis.

My initial paper on Clotel did not resolve the relationship of the four texts to one another, but the practice of considering the four editions as elements of material culture informed the argument of this thesis: William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel is a four-volume text that must be read relationally and with attention to the materiality of each edition. It is worthwhile to study Clotel as a pamphlet, but when we can study it as a pamphlet that was once serialized in a newspaper and later became a hardcover book, we see the dynamic nature of the text. It is only when we consider four editions equally and relationally that we see how Clotel is inimitable as much for its multi-dimensionality as it is for its historical significance. By calling for this dynamic method of reading, the novel challenges our current methods for historicizing literary texts. I seek to contest the convention of canonizing a single edition of Clotel. We must abandon our reliance on the 1853 edition for critical analysis and our tendency to perform a cursory reading of the later editions of the novel. These practices cannot fully attend to the evolutionary nature of Clotel as a text that responds to four distinct historical moments, nor to the changing political motivations of a single author. We must instead read Clotel as what it truly is: a tangled text…

Read the entire thesis here.

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