Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Yahdon Israel, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ezra Greenspan about his book William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Biography, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
“It isn’t enough,” News on the March reporter Jerry Thompson meditates, “to tell us what a man did. You got to tell us who he was.” The he, in Thompson’s meditation, was Charles Foster Kane—a wealthy newspaper mogul who, after a series of failures enveloping his political, public and, inevitably, private life, seals himself off from the world to die alone in his private Xanadu estate. With no family or friends, the only thing Kane leaves behind—besides a room full of statues—is his last words: “Rosebud.” But before “Rosebud,” there’s an even more complex inheritance Kane bequeaths: “I am, have been, and will be only one thing—an American.” As Kane’s birthright seems to tell us as much—if not more—about him as his dying words, we become burdened with the dual responsibility of a double investigation. Not only do we have to investigate what “Rosebud” means but, we must also take responsibility for what it means to be an American. And since being an American is, was, and will always be “a complex fate” as Henry James warned, our investigation into the lives of others will always be inevitably tethered to the responsibility we decide to take for ourselves. Without accepting this dual responsibility, we do not get a biography as complex, rich, and subversive as Ezra Greenspan’s William Wells Brown: An African-American Life.
After escaping slavery in his native Kentucky at the age of twenty, William Wells Brown went onto become one of the most prolific African-Americans in the 19th century. He was a prominent abolitionist lecturer, writer, playwright and historian—he even practiced homeopathic medicine. His novel Clotel (1853) is considered to be the first novel published by an African-American. At the height of his professional career, Brown was as important a figure as Frederick Douglass and yet, all contributions considered, only one of these men have been forgotten in the treacheries of time—and it wasn’t Douglass, which begs the question: How does a man as prolific as William Wells Brown disappear?
Ezra Greenspan, Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, answered my first question with the mastery of a raconteur:
“Before I really started this project, I was at an archive in Massachusetts and was talking to one of the archivist about [William Wells] Brown. When I mentioned that Brown believed his mother to be the daughter of American frontiersman Daniel Boone, he immediately dismissed the validity of that statement and left. About two hours later, I repeated the exact same story to another archivist who comes out and, without batting an eye, says: ‘I believe it.’ Now this had been the same story. The only difference was the archivists: the first one was white; the second was black. The white archivist completely dismissed the possibility; the black archivist was all too accepting. This immediately struck me as something profound. I realized that, if I was actually going to find Brown, I couldn’t listen to archivists. I was going to have to make the archives, themselves, talk.”
“Making the archives talk” would take Greenspan on an “experimental voyage.” A voyage that would demand—like Brown’s self-exile in Great Britain when he escaped slavery—five years of his life. A voyage that would take Greenspan through as many states and countries as Brown had, when Brown was lecturing, writing, performing and practicing homeopathic remedies: Missouri, New York City, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, and even the British Isles. A voyage that would lead Greenspan to realize, as Brown probably did in his own lifetime, that excavating a life—whether theirs or someone else’s—is “a family affair.” But since the crux of this excavation was predicated on family, “making the archives talk” ultimately proved to be a voyage with its own limitations. When I asked him what those limitations were, Greenspan confided:
“Brown was born of mixed racial heritage: his father was white; his mother was black. His father was a ghostly figure in his life, as many white men who had kids with black women were during that time and his mother and sister were sold down the river so much of Brown’s actual history and identity was one of self-invention. And you see this throughout Brown’s literary career. He always reinvented himself whenever circumstances required.”
Self-invention is one of the essential fibers of America’s cultural fabric. Many of our greatest figures have changed their names, obscured their histories and—in extreme cases—have forsaken them altogether. Brown’s brand of self-invention is unique because it comes in direct contention with the first commandment of all fugitive-slave narratives: “Thou shalt not lie.” But how are these narratives capable of such unflinching facts, when every wince and wink of slave life meant ruthless deception on behalf of the people who owned them (undocumented deaths and birthdays, unrecognized marriages, arbitrary sales and purchases of friends, foes and family members down the river)? Whereas the genre of slave narrative reveled in its uncompromising authenticity, Brown’s narrative authenticity footed the fine line between fact and fancy. This is what made Brown’s writing so brilliant: he was able to alchemize honest narratives from a life wrought with denials, deceits and devastations—and it was this brilliance that attracted Greenspan to Brown:
“Although there were many differences between Brown and me: he was black, I’m white; he was Christian, I’m Jewish; he was born a slave, I wasn’t. And yet his life spoke to me both professional and personally. I grew up during the Civil Rights era and there were many things within black culture which resonated with me—the music, the language but most of all, the struggle for freedom. It’s reminiscent of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt. Brown was a particular interest to me because of his wit, intelligence and eloquence on the page—but mostly because of its elusiveness. Anytime I thought I had figured him out, he’d show another dimension. It was definitely before its time and I felt that now was the perfect time to give it the attention it always deserved.”
While Brown’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass, had gone on to become a statesman for the struggle of African-Americans, William Wells Brown valued the freedom with which his writing could move through the real and imagined and made the artistic choice to preserve that freedom. This does not mean that Brown was apolitical. Fellow abolitionist, Charles W. Slack, quoted Brown saying he “wanted to give a faithful account of his people and their customs without concealing his faults.” The faithful account did not come without its price. Because Brown’s writing style was a hybrid of cultural myths and fact, for black and white Americans alike, the complexities of his writing had gone underappreciated. With Douglass, you were getting a statesman; with Brown, you were getting an artist. It was difficult for a country to see its slaves become anything besides that, but when it came time for America to choose the lesser of two evils, it went with what it knew: the statesmen. When I asked Greenspan if Brown’s insistence on being an artist had contributed in any way to his dismissal in history, Greenspan is impressed with the observation but goes a step further to explain:
“Besides the fact that Douglass was a statesman, he also had an archive for his work to be remembered. By the time Brown died in 1884, all that was left was his personal library to his wife, Annie. But without his know-how, Annie had no way of preserving her husband’s legacy and when she died in a fire, the library was never recovered. So, in addition to being a statesman, Douglass was able to make sure that his life’s work was archived in a way Brown’s wasn’t. This is why archives are so important. When all else is gone—all you have is the writing. ”
This brings us back to the question of Charles Foster Kane’s last words and his birthright. Jerry Thompson attempted to get as close to Kane—much like Ezra Greenspan attempts with William Wells Brown—as he possibly could to figure out who Kane was. When he didn’t find out, Thompson admits that most of his time had been spent “playing with a jigsaw puzzle.” Even if they would have discovered what “Rosebud” meant, Thompson concludes soberly, “I don’t think any word can define a man’s life.” As Thompson leaves and the camera pans over an armory of unpacked statutes, we discover that “Rosebud” was the name of a sled Kane had when he was a boy. But what does that mean? Does the sled represent the childhood he always wanted? Does it represent the loving affection from his mother? Or, does it represent another piece to the complex fate of what it means to be an American?
Maybe this is what makes being an American so complex: we can be as many things as our circumstances allow. In his time, circumstances had made William Wells Brown many things: a slave, a fugitive, an expatriate, a writer, a freeman, a lecturer, a performance artist, a husband, a father but most of all, an American. “It is time for William Wells Brown,” Greenspan writes, “to be American again. To do Brown Justice, writer and reader must be prepared to stretch ‘truth’ to all reasonable limits, as Brown did over four decades of writing.” For all of his time, effort and love, Greenspan understood his limits as a biographer. He knew he could not speak for William Wells Brown; he could only let Brown speak for himself.
Ezra Greenspan is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and the editor of William Wells Brown: A Reader. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
Yahdon Israel writes about race, class, gender and culture in American society. He has been been published in Avidly and The New Inquiry. He is currently attending The New School for his MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Bed-Stuy till he dies.