Clotel; or, The President's Daughter

Critical reception

The novel has been extensively studied in the late 20th and early 21st century. Kirkpatrick writes that Clotel demonstrates the "pervasive, recurring victimization of black women under slavery. Even individuals of mixed-race status who attempt to pass as white nevertheless suffer horrifically."[16] It exposes "the insidious intersection of economic gain and political ambition—represented by founding fathers such as Jefferson and Horatio Green." It is a "scathing, sarcastic, comprehensive critique of slavery in the American South, race prejudice in the American North, and religious hypocrisy in the American notion as a whole."[5] The novel and the title "walk a precarious line between oral history, written history, and artistic license."[8] Mitchell said that Brown emphasized romantic conventions, dramatic incident and a political view in his novel.[17]

Recent scholars have also analyzed Clotel for its representations of gender and race. Sherrard-Johnson notes that Brown portrayed both the "tragic central characters " and the "heroic figures" as mulattoes with Anglo features, similar to his own appearance.[18] She thinks he uses the cases of "nearly white" slaves to gain sympathy for his characters. She notes that he borrowed elements from the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child's plot in her short story, "The Quadroons" (1842). He also incorporated notable elements of recent events, such as the escape of the Crafts, and the freedom suit court case of Salome, an enslaved woman in Louisiana who claimed to be an immigrant born in Germany.

Martha Cutter notes that Brown portrayed his women characters generally as passive victims of slavery and as representations of True Women and the cult of domesticity, which were emphasized at the time for women. They are not portrayed as wanting or seeking freedom, but as existing through love and suffering. Cutter asks, if Mary could free George, why did she not free herself?[14] Although Brown published three later versions of Clotel, he did not seriously change this characterization of the African-American women. Slave women such as Ellen Craft were known to have escaped slavery, but Brown did not portray such women fully achieving freedom.[14]

Mitchell, in contrast, believes that Brown portrays his women as acting heroically: she notes that Clotel escapes and goes back to Virginia to rescue her daughter, and more than one escape is described. She thinks he emphasizes adventure at the sake of development of character. Even after heroic action, Brown's women are subject to the suffering of slavery. He emphasizes its evil of illegitimacy, and the arbitrary breakup of families.[19]

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