- “The Progress of the Heat Within”: The West Indies, Yellow Fever, and Citizenship in William Wells Brown’s Clotel
During certain seasons of the year, all tropical climates are subject to epidemics of a most destructive nature. The inhabitants of New Orleans look with as much certainty for the appearance of the yellow-fever, smallpox, or cholera, in the hot-season, as the Londoner does for fog in the month of November.—William Wells Brown, Clotel
With the above statement in his 1853 novel Clotel, William Wells Brown begins his description of the New Orleans yellow fever epidemic that fractures the Morton family and sends another generation of Thomas Jefferson’s descendents to the auction block. The statement is followed by a brief description of the yellow fever epidemic and its effects upon the human and social body before Brown picks up his narrative about Clotel, her family, and the social effects of racial amalgamation. This passage, Brown’s geopolitical positioning of the epidemic, and his literary-historical sources for its representation, are worth a second look. In a passage unique to the 1853 novel, Brown compares New Orleans’ epidemics to London’s fogs, suggesting that epidemics in the U.S. South are similar to the rainy environment which defines London, and, by extension, Londoners. Just as England’s climate was said by contemporary climatologists to have been at least partially definitive of its subjects’ identities, Brown’s text suggests that yellow fever defines the South and its [End Page 1] citizens. When yellow fever’s historical connections to the West Indies and its role in debates about race and southernness are considered alongside its representation in Clotel, it can be seen that Brown’s representation of the epidemic constructs textual and geographic relationships between the U.S. South and the West Indies that destabilize antebellum geographies of bodies, race, and nation.
Brown’s representation revises standard readings of yellow fever to locate a revolutionary fever that originates in the tropics but is also present in the United States.1 In both the 1853 Clotel and Brown’s 1854 lecture St. Domingo: Its Revolutions and its Patriots, he connects yellow fever with the desire or intent of slaves to revolt; in both works, a tropical contagion— real and discursive—infects the physical and national bodies that embodied white southern citizenship. Brown addresses perspectives of both white and black communities regarding the relation of Haiti, the U.S. South, and their slaves through his account of the epidemic, which links the countries by exposing their similar histories and geographies and by raising the possibility of slave rebellion. Examining Clotel’s intertextual representation of the epidemic reveals how Brown incorporates tropical history into the body of his text and recontextualizes his sources to problematize racial and place-specific identities.2 In this essay, I position Brown’s texts against contemporaneous and interdependent narratives of medical and southern exceptionalism to explore how yellow fever forced bodies in different geopolitical locations to be read in relation to one another. To explore this textual and epidemiological dialogue between the U.S. South and the tropics, I focus on two key moments in Clotel: the representation of the yellow fever and the description of the Haitian-American revolutionary Picquilo.
Brown’s treatment of tropical disease in the 1853 edition of Clotel is unusual for a number of reasons: first, Brown significantly modifies the historical sources from which he borrows, and second, unlike the two later versions published during the 1860s, the earlier novel emphasizes yellow fever’s propensity to define New Orleans’ identity and its connection to the tropics.3 In antebellum America, what was perceived as the parallel movement of ideas and germs from the tropics to the white body and nation caused widespread anxiety and fear of the tropics, a connection Brown uses representations of yellow fever in the 1853 Clotel to engage. Accordingly, both the novel and popular accounts of the disease evaluate the American epidemic in the context of histories of disease and slave revolution in Haiti. It is significant, then, that Brown’s primary sources for his representation of the yellow fever epidemic include an [End Page 2...