The first known full-length African American novel, Clotel, by William Wells Brown, was originally published in London as Clotel, or The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853). It first appeared in the United States as Miralda, or The Beautiful Quadroon: A Romance of American Slavery Founded on Fact (serialized in the Weekly Anglo-African during the winter of 1860–1861), then in book form, substantially revised, as Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States (1864) and Clotelle, or The Colored Heroine: A Tale of the Southern States (1867).
Based on persistent rumors about Thomas Jefferson's relations with a slave mistress, Clotel begins with the auction of Jefferson's mistress (Currer) and her two daughters by Jefferson (Clotel and Althesa). Currer and Althesa both die in the course of the narrative, Althesa in particularly tragic circumstances: she has married her owner and raised two daughters as free white women. When she and her husband die, their daughters are sold into slavery by their father's creditors.
Clotel's owner in Virginia falls in love with her, fathers a child by her, and, despite vague promises of marriage, sells her. She escapes from a slave dealer and returns to Virginia disguised as a white man to free her daughter, Mary, still a house slave. Unfortunately, Clotel returns in the midst of Nat Turner's insurrection (1831). The unusually vigilant authorities detect her imposture, seize her, and transfer her to prison in Washington, D.C. When Clotel bolts from her captors, they pursue and trap her on a bridge over the Potomac, and she leaps to her death in the river. Mary ultimately escapes to England, where she marries George Green, another fugitive and a veteran of Turner's rebellion.
Clotel, like other examples of early African American fiction, retains some features of slave narratives. Brown, himself a fugitive slave, bases many of the novel's details, anecdotes, and characters on incidents and figures in his own life. Like slave narratives, the novel emphasizes its basis in fact in order to buttress its authority as an indictment of slavery. Clotel, however, outstrips most slave narratives in its use of a variety of genres and voices, from anecdotes, vignettes of slave life, newspaper accounts, and folklore to songs, poems, and abolitionist rhetoric.
Clotel also bears a strong resemblance to white abolitionist fiction, especially its predecessor, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), though Brown's ironic tone sets it somewhat apart from such works. Like Stowe's Little Eva, Clotel's Georgiana Peck is a virtuous white woman responsible, just before her own tragic death, for freeing the slaves on her father's plantation. The novel follows abolitionist propaganda in emphasizing slavery's destruction of the family and its corrosive effect on sexual mores, black and white, and contains an important development of the “tragic mulatto” theme. Most daringly, Clotel attacks not only the hypocrisy of slaveowning and slavery-condoning Christians but also the similar hypocrisy of such republican icons as Jefferson, suggesting that the existence of slavery fatally compromised the very ideals of the republic.