Sunday, February 23, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 215: William WellsBrown, Madison Washington (#215)

William Wells Brown, "Madison Washington(1862) from William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings:

William Wells Brown was an escaped slave who, after learning to read and write, embarked on a pretty successful (and ground-breaking) writing career: first African-American novel (about Jefferson's black children, so I guess that was never really a secret), first African-American travelogue, first African-American play.

And along the way he wrote a collection of short African-American biographies, including one about the escaped slave and revolt mastermind Madison Washington. (Which is the kind of name that seems to push one into greatness.)

Brown retells Washington's story with a mix of efficiency and feeling. We don't dwell on anything too long; we get told pretty quickly about Washington's escape from slavery, his return to rescue his wife, his plan to take over a ship full of slaves being shipped down south. And at the same time, Brown slows down the story enough to add his two-cents, most of which are appropriately melodramatic: Washington is a paragon of African beauty, his wife is the height of interracial beauty, his rescue of his wife shows his devotion, his rescue of the white slavers from the revenge of the escaped slaves raises him to Christ-like status, etc.

It's done well, and you can see how this book, published in the midst of the Civil War, might have resonated at a time when black soldiers were a topic of debate; and the humanity and equality of black people was also a topic of discussion.

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