"I WOULD HAVE THE CONSTITUTION TORN TO SHREDS AND SCATTERED TO THE FOUR WINDS OF HEAVEN": EXCEEDINGLY RARE FIRST EDITION OF PREEMINENT BLACK ABOLITIONIST WILLIAM WELLS BROWN'S NARRATIVE, 1847, ISSUED WHILE A FUGITIVE SLAVE
BROWN, William W[ells]. Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847. Octavo, original gilt-stamped brown cloth rebacked with partial spine preservation; pp. (2) (i-iii) iv (v) vi (vii) (vii) viii-xi (12-13) 14-140 (2). $11,000.
First edition of the powerful first autobiography by William Wells Brown, the groundbreaking novelist and "leading African American historian of his era"—dedicated to "recording his people's presence in North America"—with engraved frontispiece portrait, an especially rare copy in original cloth boards.
Brown, who escaped slavery in 1834, shared with Frederick Douglass a similar early history and a friendship that occasionally spiraled into rivalry. Brown's Narrative, a seminal Black autobiography and a work of profound influence, was "exceeded in popularity and sales only by the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)" (Oxford Companion to African American Literature, 106). His Narrative "gave a more comprehensive portrait of slavery than Douglass', since Brown… had seen firsthand the cruelties of the slave trade in the Mississippi Valley" (Mayer, All on Fire, 389). That unique and distinctive aspect of the Narrative is foremost when he writes of witnessing slave auctions while enslaved: "Of the many features which American slavery presents, the most cruel is that of the slave-trade… [it] presents some of the most revolting and atrocious scenes… sinews, blood and nerves, of human beings, are sold with as much indifference as a farmer in the north sells a horse or sheep." Brown would become the "leading African American historian of his era," a man who "devoted himself in one pioneering book after another to recording his people's presence in North America… the most prolific Black writer of his century." Yet, in many ways, he has long remained "an absence—an invisible man" (Greenspan, William Wells Brown, 2-5).
"The son of a slave mother and a white man, Brown called his master 'the man who stole me as soon as I was born'… Hired out to a succession of cruel masters," he escaped on New Year's Day, 1834 and "found work on Lake Erie steamboats running slaves to Canada. It was a literal and symbolic reversal of his life as a slave." Writing of his role in the Underground Railroad, he notes: "In the year 1842, I conveyed, from the first of May to the first of December 69 fugitives over Lake Erie to Canada." In his first major speech, delivered at an 1844 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Brown declared: "I would have the Constitution torn to shreds and scattered to the four winds of heaven." Soon after publication of his Narrative, issued while still a fugitive, Brown spent five years in exile. "In a speech he gave before leaving, he wittily noted that if America was the cradle of liberty, it had rocked the baby to death" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 428-29). In Europe Brown authored numerous articles, published Three Years in Europe (1852), and was persuaded to return after American abolitionists raised funds for his freedom. He is also famed for pioneering works such as Clotel (1853), Black Man (1863), Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), and his final memoir, My Southern Home (1880). To Dr, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Brown's "improvisational genius" made him "one of the nation's most influential fugitive slaves." In his life and writings, "Brown worked not only for emancipation and the removal of racial restrictions, but also for the promotion of peace and temperance. His publications, together with his reform efforts, are a substantial legacy" (ANB). First edition, first printing: with no statement of edition on title page or copyright page. With frontispiece portrait engraved from his "earliest known photographic likeness" (Greenspan, 152). Containing Brown's preface; "Letter from Edmund Quincy, Esq." with in-print date, "Dedham, July 1, 1847"; J.C. Hathaway preface dated in print "Farmington, N.Y., 1847"; rear text page with in-print: "William Wells Brown. Boston, Mass., June 1847." Sabin 8594. Howes B874. Eberstadt 112:367. Blockson 9749. Work, 311.
Text expertly cleaned; frontis with marginal expert paper repair, not affecting image or printing; faint remnant of institutional stamp to title page and one leaf (47); very light soiling and dampsatining to original enpapers; original cloth expertly restored and rebacked with a portion of original spine laid down.