Kentucky’s First Writer

This month Lexington’s Carnegie Center honored half a dozen authors as the freshman class in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. Among the initial inductees is Kentucky’s first writer: William Wells Brown.

Brown was born in 1814 and escaped slavery at twenty years of age. He became a prominent abolitionist whose writing includes memoir, fiction, and historical non-fiction. Brown’s memoir begins:

I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose.

The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave has a place among other slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Ann Jacobs’. His story is harrowing and awe-inspiring.

Brown’s most significant work, though, is Clotel; or the President’s Daughter, a fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s progeny. This book stands out as the first novel by an African-American and stands along side other 19th century American classics, such as Moby Dick, which was published two years prior. Like Melville, Brown brings to bear fiction and nonfiction techniques in the writing of his antislavery novel, including: poetry, anecdotes, newspaper articles, speeches, and letters.

Other inductees to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame are Harriette Arnow, Harry Caudill, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, and, the Pulitzer prize winner, Robert Penn Warren. Kentucky has a rich literary history and an abundance of writers. I look forward to seeing other authors honored in the years to come.

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