- Clotel, by William Wells Brown: An Electronic Scholarly Edition
Perhaps no book cries out for a digital edition like William Wells Brown's novel Clotel. In the first place, Clotel is not really a book at all, but rather a series of books in which Brown would reinterpret his basic story over fourteen years: Clotel; or the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (published in London in 1853); Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon.A Romance of American Slavery, Founded on Fact (serialized in the New York Weekly Anglo-African from 1860 to 1861); Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States (published as part of James Redpath's series of dime novels for Union soldiers in 1864); and Clotelle; or The Colored Heroine (1867). Moreover, the novel famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) recycles a host of other texts, from Brown's own autobiographical writings to Grace Greenwood's poem "The Leap from the Long Bridge," to Englishman John Relly Beard's biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Itself a kind of web of texts—or "text network," to borrow the term Susan Gillman has recently coined to describe Uncle Tom's Cabin—Clotel seems ideally suited to the web's special technological capacity to juxtapose multiple texts, highlight textual variants, and link to annotations and other explanatory materials. Digitization, in other words, is poised to realize the multidimensionality the novel has always possessed but could never make fully legible within the confines of the printed page.
Consequently, Christopher Mulvey's electronic edition of Clotel, part of the African American Research Library series from the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center, could not be a more welcome project. It offers beginning students and dedicated scholars alike an amazingly rich experience of Brown's novel on multiple levels. The site not only collects the four versions—a valuable endeavor in itself, especially in the case of the serialized version, republished here for the first time—but also allows readers to compare them by reading them in either two or three parallel columns. (It also makes each edition available either as a reading text or as page images, enabling us to read Miralda, for example, alongside the news reports, letters to the editor, reprinted speeches, and abolitionist poetry that originally buttressed it.) Juxtaposing the four texts encourages readers to track Brown's revision process, in which he not only reorganized passages—here tagged with buttons that helpfully link to their counterparts in other editions—but changed the plot, characters, style, and ending of the novel dramatically. In the 1853 Clotel, for instance, the title character is the daughter of Thomas Jefferson; in the 1860-1861 Miralda, she loosens this affiliation to become simply "a descendent of Thomas Jefferson"; and by the 1864 Clotelle, she is simply "the granddaughter of an American Senator," blunting the earlier version's more pointed political critique of the foundational role of slavery in the United States. More broadly, with each revision, Clotel becomes more conventionally novelistic. As Mulvey points out in the textual annotations, the subtitle's shift from A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853) to A Romance of Southern Slavery, Founded on Fact (1860-1) to A Tale of the Southern States (1864) is telling. Each subtitle associates the novel with a different genre: "Narrative" links it to the verisimilitude of the slave narrative; "Romance" implies a "more imaginative construct" (although [End Page 749] "Founded on Fact" offsets this); and "Tale" "falls somewhere in between." Moreover, whereas the first subtitle presents slavery as a national issue, the third and fourth define it as a Southern one, while the intervening edition, with its adjectival construction "Southern slavery," strikes a more ambiguous note.
Likewise, the later versions of Clotel gradually move away from the patchwork approach that characterizes the 1853 edition, shedding the snatches of poetry, quotations from slave law, newspaper reports, and borrowed material to assume a more straightforward narrative mode. Here Mulvey's textual collation is...