William Wells Brown: An African-American Life

William Wells Brown: An African-American Life


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC.>>Good afternoon and welcome
to the Library of Congress. I’m John Cole. I’m the director of the Center for
the Book in the Library of Congress, which is the Library’s reading
and literacy promotion arm. And I’m happy to welcome you
to one of our noontime talks about new books that
have special relevance to the Library of Congress. And this is how we kind
of define the books and beyond noontime series. The Center for the book itself
promotes books and reading, not only here in these talks, but also through the
National Book Festival. How many people here were at last
weekend’s, was it two weekends ago? The national was two weekends
ago, National Book Festival, which this year moved to the
convention center for the first time with pretty good results, and
so we are evaluating that, and the Book Festival itself
is certainly a going concern. And I’m hoping that we can remain in the convention centers,
as a matter-of-fact. We also have state centers
for the books in all states, which are hosted by different
kinds of institutions. But wherever they are, and
however they’re hosted their job is to stimulate public interest in
books and reading and literacy in libraries in their states. All of our Books and Beyond
talks here at the Library of Congress are filmed
for the Library’s website and so I’m asking you to please
turn off all things electronic, and we will have a format that
includes a chance for questions and answers and some
discussion with our author. And so please be aware of that, that
if you involve yourself in that, you have a chance of also being
part of our website broadcast. We will also have a book signing. I’m delighted that this beautiful
book has arrived just in time. Our speaker last night
was at Politics and Prose, as some of you know, and he tells me
the books had just arrived the day before Politics and Prose. So we are in luck, and
the book will be — it has a price of $35 and
we’re selling it at the Library of Congress price today of $30. So I hope you take advantage
of that, and the timing is such that we will need to move
to the book signing no later than 1:00 :00 depending on how
the questions and answers go. I am very pleased to be able to introduce an old
friend, Ezra Greenspan. Ezra is, and I’m going
to read this out. Now the Edmund J. And Louise
W. Con Professor of English at Southern Methodist
University in Dallas. He holds a PhD from Brown
University, and when we first met, Ezra was teaching at the
University of South Carolina. And the vehicle through which we’ve
known each other is the organization called SHARP, that many of you hope
know about or hope you are members. SHARP stands for the
Society for the History of Authorship, Reading
and Publishing. And Ezra came to the two
SHARP meetings that the Center for the Book has hosted at
the Library of Congress. The first one was the second
year of SHARP, and I can’t come up with the date for certain, but I know the last one was three
years ago, and here in Washington when we collaborated with a
number of other organizations, and had more than 250 scholars
who are interested in the history of books, libraries, and
the history of reading. Ezra has been the editor
of book history, which I meant to bring an example
of it, which he has co-edited for many years with Jonathan Rose,
who is another scholar who was in on the — well actually,
Jonathan I think we call the founder of SHARP. And it’s a remarkable
international organization that really has come a long ways
in promoting the history of books and the history of print culture. And Ezra will be giving
another talk this afternoon to our Mid Atlantic group that
is in charge of the culture, or not in charge of, but
studies book culture. And that talk will a little
bit more on the archival side of things will be at 4:00
o’clock held in the Clugey Center. Ezra is among other
things, a Whitman scholar, who in 1990 published Walt
Whitman and the American Reader. And in the year 2000,
he published a biography of the publisher George Palmer
Putnam, which was always of interest to me, because Herbert Putnam,
who was the Library of Congress from 1899 until 1939 was
George Palmer Putnam’s sons. One of his sons, right, Ezra? But Ezra is onto a
very exciting topic that he’s going to
share with us today. He’s done some pioneering
research on the important and versatile 19th century author,
writer, William Wells Brown, and it’s my pleasure now to
present to you Ezra Greenspan. Ezra. [inaudible] [ Applause ]>>[Inaudible] Thank you, John. It’s a delight to be back
at the Library of Congress. Those two books that John
mentioned, the books on Whitman and GP Putnam were
Library of Congress books. They could not of been done had
this spectacular collections of this library not been available. I’m not going to say
this in a sour way. Don’t misunderstand me, but one
can’t write a biography by contrast of William Wells Brown by relying
on the Library of Congress. We have a number of his
books here, but Brown, like most African-American figures,
pre-20th century is elusive, hard-to-find, difficult to
track down, and in part the lack of a central archive was
really the central problem. There are other problems as
well, but that was a crucial one. And that’s just by way of preface. If I have time I’m going to
circle back to Washington, and give you William Wells
Brown’s view of Washington from the 1850s before the Civil War. But I’m very happy to be here. The center of the book is
a wonderful institution. I really feel at home
coming back here. I’m going to read a fairly formally
for I think about 10 minutes and then more loosely get
to a slide presentation, which I think is the
more interesting part. But there is a little bit of
work that needs to be done, and I can do it more
effectively if I read from script. When we talk about the lives of
great American writers, Franklin, master of the press, offspring of
the platonic conception of himself, father of the city that he
adopted before it adopted him, his patron saint. Whitman, son of a broken
family, six grade education. Master of self-promotion,
incarnation of the body electric. Melville another six grade dropout,
wandering sailor, no-show at Harvard or Yale College, but graduate
of the school of Wales. Dickinson, daughter of difference
who rose to no man’s requirements, mistress of self-reliance. The only kangaroo among the beauty. Fluoro bachelor of nature, enemy
of conformity, lover of himself. Twain riverboat pilot, Confederate
Yankee, self educated with a major in humor, and a minor
in contrariness. We think of lives that were
unprecedented, unpredictable, unscripted, yet outlandish as these
lives are, none can quite compare with the life of William Wells
Brown for sheer implausibility. Brown was the master
of the implausible. For the full account I invite you
to read the 600 page biography, but for today’s purpose you need
only an introductory sketch. William as he was known
in his earliest years. We don’t even know his familiar
name, Bill, Billy, Will, Willie, we don’t know was born in 1814. This is his Bicentennial, but raised
on the Missouri frontier on a farm in an area associated
with Daniel Boone. He was really raised
in Boone country. He spent his teens rented out as
a contract laborer in St. Louis, working chiefly, and most
memorably on the first generation of Mississippi and Missouri River
steamboats, miserably unhappy, especially as his family
members were sold off one by one. Brown staged three escapes from his
masters during his St. Louis years. On the third attempt initiated as
he disembarked his master steamboat at the public landing in
Cincinnati on New Year’s Day 1834, he finally gained his
freedom and ran northeastward across Ohio towards Lake Erie. Illiterate, in all likelihood,
certainly functionally illiterate and innumerate at the time of his
escape, he quickly made himself over into a new man after settling
in Cleveland and later Buffalo where he used his unschooled
hard-earned literacy to make himself over the next five decades,
the most prolific, pioneering and accomplished African-American
writer and multimedia figure
of the 19th century. His many books include the first
known African-American novel, published play, European
travel book, history of black military
service in the Civil War, and antislavery songbook. His futurative slave
narrative is one of the seminal works in the genre. The antislavery moving
panorama he took on tour across the British Isles
in the early 1850’s, was a major achievement
in the history of African-American visual arts. And is three histories of the African-American
experience earn him the position of the leading historian in
the field during his lifetime. Although, we may today see him as the first African-American
literary professional, he actually led a high profile
multidimensional professional life as a public speaker, antislavery
and civil rights activist, temperance reformer,
and medical doctor. That’s a bare-bones
sketch of Brown’s life. The plan of this talk, however,
is to focus not on the life, but on the reconstruction of the
life as a biographical project. To do that I want to take
you behind the scenes on a biographical journey. Writing biographies
is always a journey. Sometimes it’s a multiple stage
journey, and this one occurred through selected archives. For my purposes in search of the
major writer and social activist who disappeared largely
from public view for a century after
his death in 1884. So this project was, at least
in part, a project of recovery, specifically about Brown it his
larger dimensions, because I tried to write Brown into the
larger American context. His life demands that. It’s too big and to [inaudible] and important not to
be treated that way. And so it was a recovery
project on a fairly large scale, on not to say that there hasn’t been
a great deal of work done on many of the topics that I work on,
but to bring Brown to the center to my mind was an absolutely
crucial part of the project. The fundamental research question
concerning William Wells Brown is how does one access his life? How do you get at him? Even to recent literary and cultural
historians, Brown is proven one of the most elusive figures in the
entire field of American literature. As two of the leading
21st-century scholars of African-American
literature, and the [inaudible] and John Ernest have
posed the question, where in the world is
William Wells Brown? There’s no easy answer, because there’s no central
archive there’s virtually never is for members of any pre-20th
century minority groups. The standard sources biographers
work with, personal libraries, manuscripts, letters,
albums, scrapbooks, memorabilia almost never exist. Not even for Brown,
author of numerous books that were widely reviewed,
frequently reprinted, and his name was frequently
in the news. As a younger man, five years
less senior than I am today, I initially had high hopes of
finding ample new documentation. I was young and naïve. After five years of diligent work
I’ve not found a single family letter written to or by Brown
or with one exception to or by any other member
of his family. And actually they’re three
different families that Brown had over the course of his lifetime. That’s part of the personal
story, which I’m not going to be talking about today. I don’t even have a single
specimen of the handwriting of his second wife, and I
seen only one useful specimen of his literary manuscript, and that
a couple of cheap sheets of paper that came to light two
years ago by serendipity. But for all the difficulties,
there was a way to locate William Wells Brown and
his world, or way that I thought of it, William Wells
Brown in his world. I thought it has to come together. And I want to retrace with you
some of the steps my wife, Ricky, who was a central part
of this entire project, and I made in pursuing his legacy
over the course of five years and trips covering thousands
of miles across the US, Canada, the British Isles, and Ireland. Our journey began in June 2009 when
we packed up our home in Dallas, loaded up our car, and set out
on a 14 month research trip with home base located at the
American Antiquarian Society in Wooster, Massachusetts. We took the long route
getting there. Following the trail that
tracked along the northern arc of Brown’s life, which for us
included visits to archives in Missouri, Michigan, Ontario,
all across New York State, and a long trek across
England before we settled into our sabbatical home in Wooster. Our first stop was Missouri,
where Brown spent nearly all of his boyhood in adolescence. What we were looking for, I realized
only later was our trailhead. The point of entry along the trail
I could not at the time identify. I couldn’t even see my
way, I couldn’t find that the main trail
through the narrative. It was something that had to be
discovered as we pushed forward, and this I think is not uncommon
for difficult biographical projects. Driving from Texas
northeastward and dodging a tornado as we entered the show me state. We made our first stop in
Columbia, the historical Society of Missouri, but made
little headway. That is until I happen
to notice hanging on one of the libraries walls a decades-old
Missouri state highway map. In examining it closely, I noticed
that the town of Marthasville, a place that resonated in my memory
was located more or less on the way to St. Louis, our main
destination in the state. So after a couple of relatively
fruitless days of research at the Historical Society
heading eastward toward St. Louis, we cut off the interstate,
drove down a country highway, and wound up at the following spot,
totally unaware that we had arrived at the trailhead of this
biographical journey. Notice the date. The date is important. Marthasville 1817. We parked, I think you can actually
see behind the signage there’s a little parking lot. And I can’t make out
whether that’s our car. It may be. We had no idea where we were, except
that we were on the edge of the town of Martinsville, basically
a farming community of about a 1,000 people today. And as we walked from the
car we saw historical signage around this municipal
park everywhere. And that’s really the
first part of the story, and I’ll get to it in just a moment. But let me just mention this is the
Katy Trail, which is part of the — for a Dallas site this
should’ve registered as an omen. The Katy Trail is the old Missouri
Kansas Texas railway right-of-way. And on the other end it passes within about a mile
of my office at SMU. The railroad doesn’t exist anymore. This is now a public
trail, lots of walkers, runners, bicycle, bicyclists. And I will say on the near side
toward me about half a mile from this spot is the graveyard in which Daniel Boone
was originally buried. He’s since been reclaimed,
[inaudible] and reputation by the state of Kentucky. Now, take a look at
some of the signage. First of all, there’s a little
bit of the narrative of this area, but I want you to notice is behind
me there is a restored cabin, which you’re going to see
more closely in a second. The path is actually a paved road by it has additional
historical signage. And that signage, it turned out, became a crucial part
of the entire biography. All of this completely by surprise. That’s the restoration,
[inaudible] with the plaque. What it makes clear is that this was
a reconstructed cottage dating back to 1804. It was put up by the Lewis and
Clark Bicentennial Committee of the local area commemorating
the fact that Lewis and Clark on their voyage of
expedition westward, began in effect their voyage
after leaving St. Louis. They came to this particular town
before it really it entered its American phase. And here is one of the historical
signs right by the cottage and it gives the history of this area going back
to the French period. Remember it enters the US as part of the Jefferson’s
Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Previous to that, it
was French-speaking. The name of it was La Charrette. By the time Lewis and Clark got
there it was Charrette Village, and the sign gives
the early history. So light bulb number
one went off in my head. This is Lewis and Clark territory. This is a story about
the westward frontier, about manifest destiny
in the next generation. But another interesting piece on the
signage at the bottom is the fact that this was also Boone country,
that Rebecca Boone died at the home of her daughter, Jemima Calloway. Jemima Calloway was married to
a man named Flanders Calloway. That’s of minor importance. On the backside of the same sign,
we have the American version. The town now called
Marthasville, and the explanation that it was settled by a man
by the name of Dr. John Young. Dr. John Young was
the master and owner of the young William Wells Brown. So this is not just Lewis and Clark
country, and Daniel Boone country. This is William Wells Brown country. And as you read the history
starting with Young’s purchase of the land it was
a very big purchase. On the death of Daniel Boone at the
home of his brother-in-law, his son, and sister-in-law, Young’s
sale of the land in 1826 on what you’ll notice
is absent is any mention of the name William Wells Brown. This was the situation as we
saw it in the summer of 2009. So three major pieces of
historical information. Lewis and Clark and the narrative
of American progress, Daniel Boone, the great figure of
the American frontier. And it’s still to this
day Boone country. And third, Dr. Young’s presence
and William Wells Brown’s absence. And I realized this has
to be the trailhead, and this is a major
part of my story. It’s a biography of a young
African-American who grew up on the American frontier,
who would spend his early years as an adolescent on the first
generation of American steamboats. This was somebody with really
an extraordinary background. I don’t know if you can read
it all the way in the back, but here’s another really
interesting little piece of information. The red arrow is pointing
to the information. It says “Charrette
Village adjoining the land of Flanders Calloway
and James Bryant.” I think Bryant is a
misprint for Brian who was the son-in-law
of Daniel Boone. But more to the point, Flanders
Calloway was Boone’s son-in-law, and if Rebecca Boone died in
the cabin of Flanders Calloway, and another piece of information
made it clear that Boone lived for part of his last
six years, 1814 to 1820, in Flanders Calloway’s house,
well then William Wells Brown grew up next door to Daniel Boone. I looked hard for physical evidence
of what that area looked like. Of course the most wonderful, but nonexistent photograph would’ve
been a likeness of the young cabin, but this is Flanders
Calloway’s homestead. No date. I don’t know
when it was taken. Looks to me to be 19th century,
but this would be very close. Young’s house would’ve been
much larger, and much fancier. A year later Ricky and I after
a year or eight or nine months in Wooster, on our
drive back to Dallas. We’re now in the summer of 2010, decided that we would come
back via the southern route. And that was primarily an
attempt to find both the white and the black sides
of Brown’s family. Brown’s father was a white
man, and we found his father. We found out a lot about him. We found Dr. Young, who was
a first cousin of the father, and we looked very, very hard
for Brown’s mother, Elizabeth. And that I have to say was a
labor of ultimate frustration. We got we thought very
close in Virginia. We think she was born in
Virginia, but we never found her. In any event, we decided on the
last day of that 13 month trip that we would return as
kind of rounding a circle that we would return to Martinsville and by this point how does
one write a book like this. One relies on a lot of professional
friends, librarians, archivists, scholars, and we by appointment
met up with the director of the local historical society. That’s Kathy Sharpinwars,
as well as the head of the Missouri State archives
from St. Louis, Mike Everman, and his wife Diane, a
professional archaeologist. And by the time we met up
with them in July of 2010, we realized that we were
standing the whole time. The moment we got out of her car the
year before, all the land around. The place of the restoration, the
municipal park, the parking lot, the cornfields all around, and the
town of Martinsville on the top of the hill that all of this was
the original John Young estate., Which is to say, the moment we got
out of our car, we were walking on the same land on which William
Wells Brown had spent his childhood. So we came back we hoped
to see what we could see through the eyes of professionals. And so, Ricky’s taking
the photographs. Here we are walking the grounds, and it probably hasn’t
changed all that much. The lower lying land. This is very fertile land is
very close to the Missouri River, midsummer, lots of corn growing. So we walked the land
looking for marks like survey marks of
the original plot. Here we are further along, and
I’m afraid not much really to see. A restoration. This is actually in the
center of Martinsville. We did find some of
the original spots where Young owned property
in Marthasville. We don’t know where
the original house was. You know, I suppose that somebody
with supersonic technology, you know, maybe Henry Louis
Gates could get an aircraft fly over this area, you know, with
sensory devices, and find, you know, where the bones, you know,
of the historical past were. We did this, you know, the hard way. And just to update the historical
narrative, because we are talking about one of the pioneers
of African-American history. Four years later I think, thanks to Kathy Sharpinwars
they’ve put up a new sign. This went up in the
last four months. Sorry, it’s not a very
good photograph. But finally, in the year
of his bicentennial, William Wells Brown has
entered the official narrative of Marthasville and
Missouri history. I’m going to skip over a segment. Sorry, we just don’t
have enough time. I want to talk a little
bit about archives. That was our first archive,
in a manner speaking. The remains of a physical location and the narrative that
got attached to it. William Wells Brown spent
five years in England, technically is a fugitive
slave from 1849 to 1854. While in England he brought out an Anglo-Irish
edition of his narrative. He brought out a new
edition of his songbook. He wrote the first African-American
travelogue three years in England. And he brought out —
he wrote and brought out the first African-American
novel. He was a busy man. All of that he did on the side. He was the best known
African-American lecturer in the British Isles in the 1850’s. He was a phenomenon. The reason he went in the beginning,
besides his sheer interest in spreading his wings, was
that even though a noncitizen, technically a nonperson
in the United States. He was an official delegate to the third international peace
Congress meeting in Paris, France. And while there, he was one of the
most electrifying speakers there. He made some very important
contacts. One was with an English
aristocrat by the name of John Lee. The strangest kind of an aristocrat. An aristocrat who leaned left. And Lee, who was by way a
cousin of the Lee’s of Virginia, including Robert E Lee, took a quick
interest in Brown and invited him when they got back to England, as
well as some of the other delegates, to come visit at his country estate
about an hour north of London. And here you have a measure of a
live person born in the slave shanty in the bluegrass country of
Kentucky, an honored guest at one of the finest mansions
in all of England. This, by the way, was the site
of Louis XVIII court in exile in the early 19th century. It’s an absolutely
magnificent house. The back view. What makes it most interesting
and really the reason that Ricky and I went up there was Brown
mentions in his travelogue that Lee had his name inscribed on
a brick, and the brick installed — Lee was one of the leading amateur
astronomers in the British Isles. In the vault of Lees Observatory. It was the firmament
of great people. I don’t know who the other
folks were, and we were hoping that we would actually get a chance. We had to figure out how
to get into this house. But once we had done that, get a chance to see this
remarkable testament to the young William Wells Brown. Well, it turns out, everything we
looked for physically in England, from Brown’s period, just about
everything, no longer existed. This great house suffered a
major fire in the early 1960’s. They restored it, but
they had no reason to restore the observatory,
so that part was gone. We figured though it would have
been the corner that abut outward on this side, on the left side. Now, very quickly I want to
circle back to the United States, and to Brown’s view of Washington. And as I said, it’s not
an entirely happy view of our nation’s capital
in the 1850’s. While in England, Brown
had Washington on his mind. He read the American newspapers. He knew what was going on
with the Fugitive Slave Bill. It basically meant he was staying
in England for a good long time. He couldn’t come back,
too well-known. And so he dug in and did
quite a lot of writing. Two particular works by Brown
that relates to the portrayal of Washington, and they’re both
very interesting and very powerful. Brown produced the first
African-American panorama that was shown in the British Isles. The panorama was an enormous
narrative painting done on heavy canvas, rolled up on
scrolls, and presented in a way that might remind one
of moving pictures. It was a form of visual technology
that basically was the precedent to the predecessor
to moving pictures. Brown apparently commissioned
250 yards of canvas in 24 views, and he would perform. He would show it at night
in a dimly lit room. He would often sing. He was a wonderful singer,
and he would tell the story. One of the 24 views was
his view of Washington. And basically what Brown was doing
was rewriting American narrative history from an African-American
point of view, as well as the visuals that went
with it turning them into a kind of visual art that was
suitable for the presentation of African-Americans and
African-American history. This was enormously ambitious tasks. Virtually none of the old
panoramas have survived. But Brown’s had a catalog, so we know from the
catalog what the panorama, what the 24 views looked like. One of them is very reminiscent. For those of you who have seen 12
Years a Slave, you may remember that the director made a point
when Northrop is being held in a Washington prison of
cutting out and showing the tops of buildings with the top
of the capital sticking up to give the viewer a
sense of the proximity, in a manner speaking
of slavery and freedom. The problem of American democracy,
and that was one of Brown’s scenes. Brown’s is even richer. Brown’s takes place in 1848
when there’s a mass celebration in Washington of the
revolutions for freedom that had broken out across Europe. And in the backdrop,
are the slave pens. And for Brown this was the correct
way of presenting American history, and especially our nation’s capital. At that point, Brown had
never been to Washington. He would come actually
only after the Civil War. He was a generalization of the Freedman’s Monument
to Abraham Lincoln. The other work, visual work that
Brown produced, this may be familiar to least a few of you is the famous
illustration from his novel, Clotel. Clotel, the story, fictitious,
but not entirely an accurate story of the slave daughter
of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson’s slave girl Sally. At the end of the story Clotel
returns to rescue her daughter held in Virginia, is recaptured, sent
off to Washington to be held in a slave pen until she
can be transported back to her master in Mississippi. Escapes the slave pens, runs
across Washington and is running across the long bridge from
Washington to Alexandria. She’s cut off on both
ends, and in desperation, as this illustration
shows jumps to her death. For William Wells Brown,
historian of America and the African-American experience, Washington DC was the
nub of the problem. And from his perspective. Remember, he’s still
in London unable to get back to the United States. This was the situation in the
United States through the 1850s, and perhaps I should close
on a more hopeful note. As I mentioned, after the Civil
War, Brown would come to Washington for the first time and he was,
I think it was in 1867 he came to Washington, Maryland
and Virginia. He met officials. He took in the city. He met the African-American
community, and he went out into the country to
meet the real people, his people. The people he’d grown up with,
for the most part in Missouri. And he came away enormously
optimistic. And as generalizations of
the Freedman’s Memorial to Lincoln thought this was the
proper way that we can pay respect to the great emancipator. That actually was a project that
had a very complicated history, but Brown eventually came
around to seeing Washington. You know, as we say today, is Washington the problem
or the solution? William Wells Brown
would say yes, and yes. Thank you for your attention. [ Applause ]>>I have a few questions Ezra. Yes.>>So how did you — I’ve never until today I never heard
of William Wells Brown. So did you discover him and what led
you to, you know, take on this task, you know, uncovering
his life and trying to put together this little bits
of information of, you know, of putting his story together. Thank you so much for doing so.>>This is a question
I’ve been asked many times as I was working on the project. Why write a biography of Brown? And, you know, I think the way
you’re posing the question leads to part of the answer. That this was a story, a life
story that needed to be written. This was an absolutely amazing life. You know, in one sense Brown was
the most inventive cultural creative figure in the United
States in the 19th century. And I’m a lover of Whitman. I put in a lot of time on
Whitman, but Brown did more things in more ways, and that’s
part of the answer also. I knew of Brown as
the author of Clotel. American Lit scholars have known
about Clotel for a long time. When I read his play, his
historic play, The Escape, I was absolutely stunned. It was to my mind, to
my sense immediately one of the best American
place of the 19th century. And almost totally unknown,
and almost totally unstaged, except when in his own life
Brown took it on the road and did one-man recitations
of all the roles. All the white roles, all the black
roles, so I thought, you know, all these works by one
person, a narrative of a life. One of the most amazing lives of
the 19th century, and, you know, you always have to ask yourself
is this something that I can do. You know, does it fit my skill set? And then I guess the final
ingredient was his sensibility spoke to my sensibility. You know, in a basic
way, I get Brown.>>Thank you. [ Inaudible ]>>Was he self educated?>>Right. No formal education. We think he was functionally
illiterate when he escaped at the age of 19. You know, and so by our standards
when our kids are often colleged. Brown could not read or write. I’m going to be in
Lexington, Kentucky next week. Lexington believes that
Brown was born there, and that’s unfortunately
not correct. Close, but not correct. And I’m going to be speaking
at a number of high schools and I think one of the things I want
to say to the kids is, you know, everybody here reads and writes. You have prospects, but Brown, by
contrast, like the vast majority of American slaves was illiterate, and in spite of a prodigious
intelligence, just extraordinary capacities,
he was a victim of slavery. And in many regards
a typical victim. And so part of the question
for me as a biographer, once he escaped was how
did he educate himself? How did he get educated? And there’s no real evidence. I mean you have to make a lot of
guesses, and the answer that I came up with, which I’m pretty happy about until the negative
criticism starts coming in. I may have to rethink this, but
I think two things happened. Part of it was self-education. And this was a young man just
bursting with creative energies, and he wanted to learn, and
he had that inner spirit. But the other part, which I think
was actually also typical among African-Americans freed
or self freed from slavery was he was
educated by the community. The people around him, and
there actually is one tiny piece of evidence that Brown was
taught in part by his wife. He married a young woman in
Cleveland within six months or eight months of his escape. And I think it was a
communal enterprise, common that African-Americans
helped one another in many ways, but once chief way was
to become educated. And so I did look for
things like, you know, I looked up every African-American
in the city of Cleveland. There were only 50 or 60
when Brown got there in 1834, and looked for philanthropic
self-help organizations in Cleveland. In fact, African-Americans
were trying to start a school, so I think the story is
partially one of, you know, of individual initiative and the
other is communal responsibility.>>I have a quick question for you about the article sources
that you used. Were there a lot or what did you
find and where were they located? Were they in Kentucky? Were they in Ohio? Because it sounds like
there weren’t a lot. There wasn’t a lot of
traces left to find.>>They’re never enough,
first of all. That’s just the way it is. About the questions about
the archival sources. How ample they were and
where they were to be found, because there were
no central archives, and because Brown presumably — this
was an important research question. What happened to Brown’s archives? Brown was one of the best
read African-Americans in the United States. He read prodigiously. He must’ve had a large
library at home. He was a professional
writer for 40 years. He went from book to
book, and he updated them, which meant that he was
probably using earlier editions as manuscript copies. He had a prodigious correspondence. He was well known, lots of
friends, interesting friends. What happened to it all? And the answer is, we don’t know. But the necessity therefore
was to go everywhere that there were Brown associations. Also to research his
friends, and colleagues. And I said earlier that I tried to
write Brown into the larger context. They’re powerful reasons for
doing that, and one was that, that was Brown’s basic premise. I mentioned Whitman. Whitman thought of himself
as utterly exceptional, and his exceptionalism
allowed him to turn himself into a representative figure. It’s a paradox. Brown never thought of
himself as exceptional. He thought of himself
as an African-American, and so what he wrote, even how
he wrote was part in parcel of being one of the people. And therefore a way to get at
Brown was to go through the lives and sometimes the archives
of his fellows. The obvious figure is
Frederick Douglass, and Brown and Douglass are look-alikes
in many ways. You know, they’re both
white father, black mother, exceptional prodigious young people. Authors of two of the great
fugitive slave narratives, print-based figures, public
speakers, and, in fact, they often worked in concert. So I would work, if I couldn’t go
into Brown through the front door, you know, I’d have to
find an alternative way. And a lot of that meant just going
archives wherever Brown lived.>>How about the [inaudible] papers? I mean did you find much in
the way of correspondence?>>Well, we are the Library of
Congress, and the great archive in the field is the
Frederick Douglass papers. And their relationship, I found
scattered bits and pieces. It’s actually a little
bit disappointing. There are no personal letters. And by the way, personal
letter from Brown to Douglass would be, how dare you. It would start with an
antagonistic statement. Douglass and Brown had a
very difficult relationship. In some ways it shouldn’t
be surprising. These are big men, and when
big men or big people get into a room there’s just not
enough oxygen to supply to, you know two major
breathing apparatuses. But there were professional
connections. Brown probably began his European
travelogue as a series of letters that were written to
first to the Northstar, Frederick Douglass’s paper. And then when that switched over to the paper called Frederick
Douglass’s Paper they were in a professional relationship. That was probably the first stage and then Brown probably
figured these are really good and I can turn it into a book. And there are documents
relating to that. And there are a couple
of scattered letters. One of the coincidences is that
the family that bought the freedom of Frederick Douglass,
a family from Newcastle in England was the same family that bought the freedom
of William Wells Brown. Their name was Richardson. These were remarkably fine people. Ellen Richardson is really
remarkable human being and both Douglass and Brown were
very close to Ellen Richardson, and Richardson’s correspondence
with Douglass is here in the Library of Congress. And when she wrote Douglass she
often associated Douglass with Brown and would ask, you know, what’s
new with my old friend William who hasn’t written me
in X number of years. So, you know, there are some very
small, but very cherished moments.>>We have one more and then
we’ll do the book signing. When I saw Ezra earlier today
of course I was thinking and I’m telling him now
that a number of people who are here are associated with
the Daniel Murray connection with the Library of
Congress, which is the name of our staff association. And so I had to ask Ezra
little bit about Daniel Murray, and the original book I had was
the publishers advance copy. And I just got it yesterday,
and I hadn’t looked — this had had no index and so I
looked today and there was something about Daniel Murray in your book. Do you want to say just a few
words about Murray and, you know, his significance, and a
little bit about, I mean, do you think he ever
met, have they ever met?>>I don’t think —
Brown died in 1884.>>So [inaudible]>>To early, but, you know, this
really raises the question for me. Murray was a way of finding a
central figure in the history of the reputation of African-American
literature and culture. And of course the date of the Paris
exposition, 1900 was very nice. I said in my introduction that
Brown’s reputation faded virtually into obscurity after
his death in the 1880’s, and the reason was Jim Crow. That’s an overstatement. Brown’s reputation remained
alive in the black community, and Daniel Murray was very much
aware of Brown and Brown’s peers. This was an amazing
generation, Brown, Jacobs, Taubman, Garnet, Delaney. One can go on and on,
and they were all born within five years of each other. And it’s the same generation that
gives us Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, and one can go on. We know what happened to the
reputation of white writers, that they became canonized. For me, Daniel Murray was
a way of trying to figure out what official status
did African-Americans have as Jim Crow was taking
over the American North and the American South. The Library of Congress
was a bit of an asylum, a haven from much of that. In any event, I wanted to know
what books did Murray take over? You know, what African-American
monuments were going to be put on display, and remember the
idea was to put them on display in two national capitals. In France and then bring them
back to the Library of Congress and put them on display
in Washington.>>For the exhibition of 190 –>>1900. The [inaudible]>>1900.>>The great French Exposition, one of the world’s
greatest world’s fairs. And he took five titles by Brown. Brown had written over a dozen
books, and this was interesting too. What part of the African-American
experience did Murray want to present in Paris? And interestingly, he did not take
many fugitive slave narratives, for example. He did — I don’t believe
he took Douglass’s. I’d have to check that. He certainly didn’t take Brown’s. He did take Harriet Jacobs, but he didn’t know
Harriet Jacobs real name. But that was a moment where
people like Dubois and Callaway and Murray thought this
is our opportunity. And unfortunately it was
a very short-lived moment of brilliance, and –>>They blew it. [laughs]>>As far as I know Murray’s
collection didn’t even come back to the Library of Congress whole. Part of it is now at
Howard, for example.>>Well that’s true, and I was
telling Ezra one of my first jobs when I came to the Library
of Congress was to sort out, and I was an intern before the
Center for the Book was created and interested in collection
development. And I was asked to help sort out what was then called the
Colored Author Collection, that was the leftover part
of the Murray Collection, and with these labels across them. But I did it in conjunction with a wonderful woman named
Dorothy Porter at Howard. And the agreement was that
if we came across duplicates that Howard wanted, they went
there and so I was part of that. And the other part of it was
to take the wonderful pamphlets that somehow had come back from
Paris and index them and put them as the Murray Collection
in the rare book and special collections division. So they’re bound together in
several different volumes, but that’s what’s left of their
heritage in terms of materials. But, of course, his heritage
lives on through the association and the fact that there’s now a
new scholarly interest in Murray. And you mentioned to me a
book that someone had done about the exposition and I know
of someone who is now doing — and I have wrote a letter of
recommendation for her fellowship. A full-time time, not full-time,
but full biography of Murray and his family in Washington,
and the role that family played. You know, in terms of what is a form
of the author thinks of, you know, black elitism in a way, but
it has to do with the families and the growth of Murray in
his family and is not as much about Murray at the
Library of Congresses. I would like to see, but maybe
she’ll get to that as well. So I’m glad that we
introduced the topic again and we can follow up on it. Well, please join us for
the book signing outside, but in the meantime, join me
in thanking Ezra Greenspan for a wonderful presentation. [Applause] Thank you.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.gov.

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