2015 Archives

SMU Prof. Ezra Greenspan’s biography of William Wells Brown a finalist for Frederick Douglass Book Prize

Acclaim continues for book about escaped slave

July 30, 2015

DALLAS (SMU) —SMU English Professor Ezra Greenspan’s acclaimed biography William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton) is a finalist for the prestigious Frederick Douglass Book Prize, one of the most coveted awards for the study of the African-American experience.

Cover of William Wells Brown: An African American Life by Ezra Greenspan
Collection of stories by William Wells Brown

Literary and cultural historian Greenspan, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Chair in the Humanities at SMU, is one of three highly respected authors nominated as finalists for the prize from a field of nearly 90 entries by a jury of scholars.

Ezra Greenspan
Ezra Greenspan

The Frederick Douglass Book Prize winner will be selected by the Douglass Prize Review Committee in the fall. The award from Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition will be presented at a celebration in New York City in February, 2016. The center recognizes each year’s best book on slavery, resistance and/or abolition

The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), who rose to great prominence as an orator, writer, reformer and abolitionist during the same era as fellow escaped slave William Wells Brown (1814-1884).

Greenspan’s well-researched and richly written biography about the man he calls “the most rivetingly inventive, entertaining black writer of his era” sheds light on Brown, who was a prolific writer and charismatic orator. The book is described in Frederick Douglass Book Prize Finalist materials as, “A detective work of sorts.”

After escaping slavery, Brown would, against all odds, become the first African American to write a novel, a printed play, a travelogue as a fugitive slave living in Europe and three volumes of black history that included the first book about African American soldiers’ experiences during the Civil War. A powerful public speaker who engaged audiences across the United States, Canada and the British Isles over a 40-year career, he was one of the foremost antislavery and civil rights activists of the 19th century.

Though the work of the dynamic author-abolitionist nearly faded into obscurity in the Jim Crow era after Reconstruction, Greenspan’s William Wells Brown presents what Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls an enthralling “experimental voyage” illuminating the 19th century dynamo’s “improvisational genius” while ensuring that Brown’s “rightful place in the constellation of leading black men and women of letters will remain fixed for future generations.”

Greenspan’s biography joins the other 2014 book he compiled to celebrate Brown’s bicentennial: the 1,042-page anthology William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings (Library of America), the most comprehensive collection of Brown’s work ever published.

For more on both Greenspan works about Brown, which have garnered extensive media coverage (and glowing reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post), see http://www.smu.edu/News/2014/ezra-greenspan-books-13nov2014.