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The Almost Accurate History of American Literature

From William Wells Brown to Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon—meet the first African American authors in reverse.

If you follow @gasstation_b on Instagram you may have seen a quote recently from William Wells Brown to commemorate his death on November 6, 1884. I also mentioned that with the publication of his novel “Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States” in 1853 he became the first African American author to be published in the United States.

And that’s almost accurate.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it follows Clotel and her sister, fictional slave daughters of Thomas Jefferson and explores the destructive effects of slavery in the United States on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mulattoes or mixed-race people, and the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave. Its general premise pulls from the common knowledge of the time that Jefferson had fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings (herself believed to be the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife).

A short time after posting that quote from Brown I came across a post from @andresawilson of the Phillis Wheatley monument that is part of the Boston Women’s Memorial. It’s located between Fairfield Street and Gloucester Street on Commonwealth Avenue, if you’re in the neighborhood and have a thing for literature, history or even just statues.

I mention this since Phillis Wheatley is also commonly given the distinction of being the first African American author to be published, with her book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” having been published September 1, 1773.

And that’s almost accurate.

Now, I know you might want to argue that since Wheatley’s book of poetry predates the founding of the United States, Wells earns the distinction instead of Wheatley, because semantics—but don’t be that guy.

Wheatley was a fascinating historical figure and gifted writer, as was Wells. Although separated by decades—Wheatley died thirty years before Brown was born—both writers were former slaves and gave an unprecedented voice to their experiences. Their respective works were widely read and celebrated with even George Washington said to have been a fan of Wheatley’s work, and they served to inspire other artists and writers of their time.

And also neither of them was the first African American author to be published.

After all that misinformation the distinction truly goes to Jupiter Hammon, who’s poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” was published as a broadside in 1760.

Jupiter Hammon

Hammon, by the way, was quite a fan of Wheatley’s work when she became the first African American woman to be published, and his second published work was a poem titled, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley”. Hammon would die nearly fifty years before William Wells Brown would become the first African American to publish a novel, but he probably would have written a poem about it if he’d still been around.

Regardless of who holds the title of first published African American author, all three of these literary figures, and the many who followed who were inspired by their work, should be celebrated for their lasting contributions to literature and history.

That, at least, is accurate.

Remembering Sir Walter Scott

Born August 15, 1771, Sir Walter Scott’s enjoyed widespread acclaim throughout his life. Despite his reputation declining in the late 19th century as writers turned from romanticism to realism, he was still recognized as the inventor of the genre of the modern historical novel—although many give that distinction to Jane Porter, whose work ‘The Scottish Chiefs’ about William Wallace was published in 1810, four years before Scott released ‘Waverley,’ his first novel.

Still, his Waverley novels played a significant part in rehabilitating the public perception of the Scottish Highlands and its culture, which had been formerly perceived as barbaric, and as a breeding ground of hill bandits, religious fanaticism, and Jacobite rebellions.

Sir Walter Scott may have been onto something when he wrote, “All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education” as author and conservationist, Beatrix Potter recalled that she learned to read by painfully spelling her way through the Scott novels ‘Rob Roy,’ ‘Ivanhoe,’ and ‘The Talisman.’

Given Potter’s own love of nature, she may have enjoyed Scott’s estate, Abbotsford, which, in addition to the home he built that would have cost nearly £2 million in today’s money, he also grew over time to include over 1,000 acres.

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